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By Benoit Gateau-Cumin

Have you noticed, in recent years, that little “je ne sais quoi” that feels so familiar when you step into the lobby of a luxe hotel? Is it that all the beautiful women are exquisitely made up and perfumed? Or does it feel more like getting off the elevator at Neiman Marcus’ cosmetics floor? Your olfactory senses are hijacked by the cacophony of fragrances at Neiman Marcus: they are there to “perfume” you, hoping you will like and buy.

The chic hotel has a totally different approach and goal: it wants to seduce you, to relax you, to make you happy, maybe giddy, to make you feel plush. You feel like inhaling deeply so as to keep that final delightful breath of posh air. Fragrant lobbies did not start at the top of the hotel food chain. In fact, they started closer to the bottom and large casinos casually released ozone and pheromones as a way to keep gamblers awake and cover some of their… well, smells. The “lifestyle” hotel started the scented lobby to seduce its own clientele: the fragrance were often trashy to achieve the desired “sinful” ambience.

Flowers, that once were responsible for not only decorating lobbies but also scenting them, have been relegated to a secondary role: oversize blooms of non-fragrant flowers and plants perched off-balance in incongruous vases have been all the rage for several years. The credit goes to one single individual, Jeff Leatham, the floral designer at the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills who had moved to Paris to design the floral displays at the Four Seasons George V. As an international tastemaker, he returned last year to the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills. The only problem with Mr. Leatham’s designs is that they gradually got away from the original purpose of a flower centerpiece: look good and smell good. Vegetable displays are spectacular but who wants to have a lobby smelling of celery? Cauliflower? Red cabbage?

What to do then? Keep bold designs, and bring fragrance from other sources.

Every hotel has a different approach to scenting their lobbies: the traditionalists still use scented candles. However those are effective only in small spaces. They may work at the Plaza-Athénée (New York) or the Surrey, but would be ineffective in the lobby of the Plaza. In London both the Rosewood and Claridge’s use scented candles.

Rosewood Hotels as a company, leaves it up to each property to pick its own fragrance, to better express the hotel’s character and its environment.

At the Mandarin Oriental Paris a “house perfume” designed specifically for the hotel comes out of a diffusor.

The Pierre (A Taj Hotel) uses a custom perfume developed by a famous french “nose” reflecting what guests see: Central Park and its dry leaves, the lobby marble walls and columns, the painted murals of the Rotunda. The scent comes out of electronic diffusors located in air-handling units. They can be programmed extremely precisely.

The Ritz in Paris electronically diffuses L’Ambre Ritz, and the diffusor controls the intensity. L’Ambre Ritz is available in 3.4 oz. bottles for 60 Euros apiece in the Ritz boutique. Sales are reportedly brisk. And at Rome’s tony Hotel Hassler, owner Roberto Wirth has been using liquid ambient scent in public areas.

The trend, however, has not been generalized. For instance at the Four Seasons New York, it appears owner Ty Warner is not fully into fragrances.

My advice would be to limit the use of fragrance to the lobby and most public space only: it does not belong in restaurants or bars, where it can conflict with food and spirits. Some perfumes are way too strong for ambience: ylang ylang, patchouli, tuberose, gardenia are wonderful essential oils for a perfume to wear, but can be nauseating as a lobby scent. Hire a nose for advice and devise your own blend. Not every guest will love it: do not lose anyone over a few drops of perfume: make sure you solicit their input and act accordingly. Revisit your policy with lobby staff: no more perfume that might conflict with the lobby fragrance.

How do you pay for this new item? Possibly take a few $$ out of your flower budget and reassign them to scent. Or make the fragrance a source of revenue. Turn it into a profit center and a Public Relations image builder for the hotel: name the fragrance after the hotel (or a most illustrious guest, such as Eloise at the Plaza, or Nelly Melba at the Savoy) and sell it in the gift shop and in the mini bars. Use it as a gift and an amenity at the holidays for repeat guests, scent hotel stationery with it. Why not executive business cards? Should the fragrance be that outstanding it could be sold commercially beyond the hotel’s boutique? Take them to Virtuoso in Las Vegas for every VIP travel agent to take home. A lot better than a tacky tent card, isn’t it?

Last but not least, build a “story” around it. How was the scent designed? Who was the “nose”. What part of the history of the hotel is it meant to evoke? Launch the fragrance with a big charity event.

Scent of a lobby: all you need now is Al Pacino.

About Benoit Gateau-Cumin

Born and raised in France, Benoit managed to scoop up a French law degree prior to studying Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

Upon graduation in 1975, he engaged in an eleven-year hotel management career that took him to Chicago, New York, Washington DC, San Diego, Istanbul, Jamaica and Hawaii. He held positions with Omni, Hyatt, Hilton International, ITT Sheraton and Méridien, as well as Honolulu’s unique Halekulani, consistently rated as one of the world’s best.

Benoit was bit by the “headhunting” bug in 1986, and has not relented yet. He founded The Boutique Search Firm in February 1992. His motto: small is beautiful. Benoit loves to mountain bike, take long walks with his wife Susana and their two dogs, and tinker with his budding collection of classic English sports cars.

Contact: Benoit Gateau-Cumin

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