This Is the Super Sneaky Way Hotels Make You Want to Come Back

High-end hotels have zeroed in on the power of psychology to keep guests coming back again and again. Here's how they do it.

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It’s not the super-fluffy, impossibly white towels, the oversized flat-screen TV, or even stellar room service. It’s actually something you can’t even see and might not realize is there.

The addictive element here is fragrance. As the rest of the world goes wild for mood-lifting essential oils, major hotel chains are catching onto the idea that aromatherapy can have a measurable impact on guest stays.

“A single signature scent is important as it gives an identity to a brand and in this case, the hotel,” explains Mina Vardar, Global Director of Rooms at Langham Hospitality Group. “Since smell is always linked to pleasure and well-being, emotion, and memory, it will help guests build stronger emotional connections with our staff and our hotel, and create a lasting impression. It makes the atmosphere at our hotels feel more inviting.” She adds, “I guess that it’s subliminal branding.”

Langham Hotels uses a blend of green grass, rose, lily of the valley, and jasmine essential oils in their Ginger Flower room scent, which isn’t surprising given that jasmine alone is one of the best essential oils to calm anxiety. The research is there to prove that aromatherapy works, and hotels are finally cashing in on it.

The in-room benefits don’t end there for the hotels, though, because scents that leave people with positive associations can be downright addictive (just think of the feeling you get when you smell your grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe), and brands like LATHER are cashing in on giving people aromatherapeutic smiles. This comfort is only available at some hotels, but in others, amenities are slowly disappearing. 

“When a hotel, especially a property that prides itself on creating special moments and lasting memories, offers a signature scent, it is creating a scent memory to cement those experiences,” shares LATHER founder, Emilie Hoyt. “If the guest takes the product home, or even happens to smell a note of the fragrance used in the product, they immediately remember the memory of their time at the property.”

Hoyt says the brain’s relation to scent is tied to our survival as humans, and that studies have shown scent memory helps newborns with feeding and bonding throughout their lives. It’s this special blend of actual need and desire for positive smells that helps hotels reap the benefits of aromatherapy.

“Scent is such a personal experience for everyone. However, there are some essential oils that seem to have common traits. Frankincense has been used for centuries in religion, and it does have a centering effect on the mind that can help with focus and prayer. While we don’t make a religious product for hotel clients, we do have wellness scents that feature frankincense as part of the blend because meditation is similar to prayer in the sense that it is about taking a moment from the day for peace,” Hoyt says.

Just about every top hotel chain you can think of—from Four Seasons to Canyon Ranch and all the beautiful travel spots in between—use some form of aromatherapy to lure guests back, Hoyt says. Replicate this effect at home by breaking out your favorite scented candle and essential oils for a good night of sleep.

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Bryce Gruber
Bryce Gruber is covers gift ideas, shopping, and e-commerce at RD.com, although you've likely seen her work across a variety of women's lifestyle and parenting topics at TheLuxurySpot.com, Bravo, Parents.com, Martha Stewart, and on your TV screen through national talk shows including The Tamron Hall Show. She lives and works in New York's Hudson Valley with her five small children. Find her on social media at @brycegruber.