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There's no doubt, our sense of smell is powerfully tied to memory recall. Now more than ever, scent technology is being used to reinforce the customer experience environment. But what happens when the experience fundamentals are missing and scent technology actually works to reinforce a bad customer experience...?


I had an experience recently that made me think on this topic. It serves as a great follow up to this week's MarketingProf's article on scent marketing.
Two weeks ago, I stayed in San Francisco at the Four Points by Sheraton at the SFO Airport while commuting between downtown and San Jose. Upon entering my hotel, I immediately noticed the scent of pie wafting from the lobby...
In fact, the pie scent was pervasive in every corridor, inside my room, even outside the hotel. It didn't take long to suspect scent technology at work, but first, I had to ask if they had pie at the restaurant. Sadly, my waiter answered "Only sometimes ma'am." Bummer. No pie.
Interested in the pervasive pie odor, I inquired about the scent with the manager. He reluctantly admitted that Four Points is using scent technology to create a more home-like and welcoming atmosphere.
Oooh. Okay. Home-like and welcoming. I like that! But here's what I noticed after four days...

  • The smell made me hungry.
  • When I learned they had no pie, I felt cheated!
  • The smell was quite strong, and eventually became annoying - especially when I was not hungry. You know how you feel after you've eaten and the smell of your empty plate or leftovers turns you off? Yech.
  • Sadly, the smell, combined with the stainless steel cleaner they used in the elevator, created a smell similar to that of VOMIT. Not very welcoming at all.
    Okay, so good for Sheraton for wanting to create a more "home like and welcoming" environment. The pie scent is a nice idea. However, the observations above go to show that a comforting smell itself isn't without some drawbacks.
    Most importantly, the smell alone isn't going to create the home like experience - it should be used to reinforce a home-like and welcoming atmosphere, and that's where the Four Points failed to deliver.
    Getting Settled.
  • The parking garage below the hotel has elevator access. Bad News: It is locked during the day! Those who have no room key must schlep out of the garage, up the hill, and around the building to the upstairs lobby carrying all their stuff. Grrr!
  • Walk in and you're immediately confronted with a fancy set of five stairs with a curved facade.... separated by a brass railing. There's no ramp (although there's a lift for handicapped guests). This seems to defy logic since most people checking into a hotel are carrying luggage. Argh.
  • Upon entering my King Suite, I was confronted by about 15 more, rather narrow stairs that led to my "sleeping loft." All I wanted to do was to find a bathroom and crash for a minute. Instead, I ended up hefting luggage up the steep incline to my sleeping quarters. Whew!
    How about a cold, clammy bath?
  • For some reason, the company insisted on installing SPRINGS on all bathroom doors, which forced them to close behind you. I could not hear the phone or anything going on downstairs from inside the bathroom. I was forced to prop the door open with a trash can so I could listen for the phone and/or knocks from room service. Huh?
  • While the curved shower rods around the standard tub created a spacious shower interior, I was dismayed to find a freezing cold bathroom (no heater or controls there) and a shower with really POOR water pressure. Not only was the pressure bad, the water didn't get hot enough, leading to an unsatisfying shower and a freezing exit on to the cold, poorly cleaned travertine floor. This wasn't like home at all!! Brr!
  • The hotel boasted bath robes and spa products. My robe was hidden in the back of a closet and went unnoticed for days. I actually used the spa lotion and it was nice -- but my mostly-empty bottle was never replenished for me like they are at other hotels. This felt a bit "cheap" in the end. Why not put out the robe as a welcome and replenish the goodies for the guests? Yah!
    Comnecting by phone.
  • The phones were improperly programmed in my room, making it very difficult to connect to the front desk, housekeeping or room service. Hello?
  • The first time I dialed directly to the front desk, I tried three times to get an answer. The first time, I got no answer. The second time, a hangup call. On the third try, I was met with an annoyed response after more than 30 rings. It was only 9:45 pm. Dang!
    And what to eat?
  • Beyond the fact that they pulled a bait and switch on the pie, the hotel's restaurant menu was uncreative and uninspired: Wings, hamburgers, fries, grilled chicken whatever... It was the same travel fare most of us road warriors are completely sick of. If they wanted to make the hotel feel more like home - why not offer home cooked meals, instead of the same, hotel fare you can find anywhere? Sigh.
    The point is that customers don't like to go through hoops - we don't have them in our home environment, and we'd rather not have to jump through them at a hotel. In fact, hoops are actually contrary to creating a home-like and welcoming experience.
    For the marketers that dreamed up the Four Points experience, I would ask the following: Is the scent of Fresh Baked Pie is going to make me feel positive when so many other aspects of the hotel experience were simply annoying? Did the company do any experience testing whatsoever with real customers - travel weary people, families, etc.?
    Either Four Points is trying to create a more home-like experience that drives brand affinity and loyalty, or it is not. If you visit the Four Points website, there's a lot of marketing hype around the hotel experience, but what I saw was failed execution.
    Ultimately, this can happen to any business. The question for Four Points is whether or not what I experienced is a limited set up hiccups related to this hotel only, or whether these problems are widespread.

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
    Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).