It’s not just the signature scent of your spa flowing down the hall or the aromatherapy suite in your bathroom. During a seemingly endless epidemic, they are also the solutions used to clean public spaces in airports, train stations and hotel lobbies. They give us headaches.
Airlines, rental car companies, cruise lines and hotels have added many of these smelly solutions during the pandemic to make customers feel more secure, says consumer psychologist Michal Strahelewitz, who teaches marketing at St. Mary’s College in California. Reassuring passengers with the scent of detergent makes perfect sense, she says, because many of us have been taught since childhood that this is what clean and safe scents look like. In fact, it has nothing to do with either of them.
She adds, “Personally, these synthetic fragrances make me shut up.”
Which makes the two of us. Over the past couple of years, travel companies have created and promoted programs along with cleaning brands. At first, experts thought the odors would fade as the epidemic faded. But the epidemic remains — and so are all those pesky headache-inducing chemical smells.
There are ways to avoid smells, but for now at least, it’s hard to escape them completely.
Patti Wood walked into a hotel room in Birmingham, Alabama, that smelled of disinfectant. Cause an immediate asthma attack.
“The smell was compelling,” says Wood, a body language consultant from Atlanta whose clients include hotel companies. “I went down to the front desk to see if there were any rooms that had been cleaned and deodorized the day before, so the smell wouldn’t be strong.”
The travel industry knows the power of smell.
Many hotels have started creating signature scents that they hope will enhance the experience. At the Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale in Arizona, for example, you can catch a whiff of “Desert Perfume,” the distinct scent of mesquite and shaggy juniper bark. CitizenM, a boutique hotel chain, imparts a “fresh” scent (its words) of “petitgrain, fresh fig and neroli contrasted with creamy sandalwood and soft musk.” It even has a sommelier smell on the staff.
But this approach can be taken to an extreme. I recently stayed at a resort in the Portuguese region of Alentejo that also had a distinct smell. I dropped a generous vial of essential oil next to the desk as I was trying to write a story. Within a few minutes, I had a severe headache. Fortunately, I could move the rose-scented decanter to the bathroom, where it probably belongs, anyway.
Companies also know that scents can be profitable. A 2012 study by Washington State University researchers linked the presence of a simple orange scent in a home décor store to increased guest spending, which rose on average by about 20%. The researchers found that the principle applies in the hospitality industry as well. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, published a research paper in 1995 that found that visitors to a Las Vegas casino gamble an average of 45% more on the floor with a pleasant scent.
These days, scents are used to make people feel safer. This seems to work – except when it doesn’t.
Anne Markowski, who works at a museum in New Haven, Connecticut, has multiple chemical sensitivities, which cause her to react to low levels of commonly used chemicals. She’s long avoided boutique hotels because of their signature scents, but during the pandemic, she says, “traveling is very stressful.”
The worst, Markowsky says, are the toilets, some of which have deodorants that give off a thick floral scent. “What they’re actually doing is contributing to indoor air pollution.”
She says she also avoids airports with chemical sprays, such as Phoenix’s Sky Harbor. “I do my best not to call in there,” she says.
This brings us to the number one way to avoid travel odors: book around them. Airlines, hotels, and car rental companies have highly publicized cleaning programs with brands known for their signature scents. For example, Hilton’s CleanStay program partners with Reckitt, makers of Lysol and Dettol, so if you’re very sensitive to smells and prefer to avoid cleaning product smells, you may want to skip a room that has just been cleaned at a Hilton.
Some hotels also have commercial ozone machines, which can eliminate unpleasant odors without using synthetic scents. Someone at your hotel should be able to tell you if they have a hotel.
Another strategy is to wear a face covering, even if you don’t have to. “If scents are bothering you, then masks can definitely help,” says Kalliope Amorphous, owner of perfume house Black Baccara. The mask prevents some unpleasant odors. If you prefer to smell something else, you can add a few drops of your favorite scent to the mask.
“Scents like lavender and chamomile can be especially soothing and calming,” she says.
Nicole Villegas, an occupational therapist who specializes in anxiety and sensory sensitivity, says travelers who are bothered by strong smells should be proactive.
“The best way to deal with a situation in which the smell may be causing you discomfort is to respond actively to the problem,” Villegas says. “When it comes to uncomfortable odors or odors, many people take a passive approach and simply wait for the odor to go away. While sometimes a negative approach may be necessary, it means that you may be around the smell for longer and feel the discomfort or pain for longer as well. “.
Villegas recommends moving around, opening a window, or wearing an odor-blocking mask.
But there’s a bigger problem at hand here: the travel industry as a whole needs to rethink its use of scents. There are already a lot of things companies use to manipulate travelers. Smells shouldn’t be one of them.