Fragrance is a powerful thing. Via our olfactory membrane our central nervous systems make contact with the outside world. The scent of a room, a tree, a nursery pudding, evokes memories and moods more effectively than any other sensation our minds process.
You don't need Doctor Who's Tardis to be transported to another time and era. Whenever I smell Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps, I'm back in North Balwyn as a teenage girl, going to the prom dance at Kew Town Hall. It's amazing how clear those memories are when guided by scent.
But it's also a very personal thing. One person's rose might be another person's ammonia. One size doesn't fit all with fragrance and I'm always surprised that there are people who douse themselves with perfume and expect everyone else to live with it.
In my case, I strongly dislike fragrances that contain a chocolate note, such as Thierry Mugler's Angel, which makes me sneeze, or anything that has fruit in it, such as blackberry, cranberry or peach. However, unless I'm stuck in an elevator with someone wearing an offensive perfume or I'm sitting next to them on a plane (it's happened), I can always walk away. I don't wear anything other than barely detectable colognes on a plane for this reason.
There's a trend for independent hotels and chains to develop signature fragrances, which are diffused throughout public spaces and corridors. Most hotel fragrances are innocuous enough and I can't say that my nose has been assaulted with anything really irritating yet, but I do find the assumption that a certain scent might please me (and every other guest) curious.
I was recently in a hotel in Asia and I could have found it with my eyes closed by smell alone. It wasn't unpleasant at all, but it was overpowering. I didn't want to smell like bergamot in that instance and it clashed with my own perfume.
It's disconcerting to check into a hotel and find that a scent you don't particularly like follows you and your luggage to your room.
There are many more serious things in life to get grumpy about than perfume, but I do wonder about people who are allergic to fragrance and how they cope with it.
Those fascinating people who design flavours and fragrances don't have their eye on your nose, but your emotions. Bespoke fragrances are often designed to evoke a specific mood or ambience. Hotels that wish to feel warm and a bit masculine, for instance, might diffuse notes of Russian leather, patchouli or cedar.
Ideally, for the hotel, the signature fragrance stimulates good memories each time a guest returns. And specific memories can be evoked, such as the cosy sensation of being holed up with a good book.
When the Le Meridien group asked New York-based laboratory Le Labo to create a fragrance for its hotels, it wanted to evoke the scent of a library. Le Labo's perfumers found an old copy of Saint Exupery's Le Petit Prince, and formulated an ambient perfume based on it.
I'm not sure anyone would walk into a Le Meridien and declare "Oh, yes, that smells like my childhood volume of The Little Prince," but perhaps they might feel the warm, fuzzy feeling that reading an old volume stirs.
Mostly, fortunately, the art of scenting hotels is a subtle one. If it's done well, it's barely noticeable. The lobbies of Mandarin Oriental hotels offer hints of zesty orange, the Westin wafts its spaces with a white tea fragrance and you'll smell a touch of ginger and lily in the lobby of a Langham hotel. They calm or lift the spirits, according to design.
Most of this eau de hospitality is transportable, as hotels package their fragrances and sell them in their gift shops. The grand hotel Le Sirenuse in Positano has 12 fragrances now, since it launched its first, Eau D'Italie in 2008. Maharaja Gai Singh of Jaipur has collaborated with perfumer Penhaligon's to create a fragrance called Vaara for his palace hotels. If you can't make it to Rajasthan you can buy the scent of its palaces online.
Taking this concept even further, New York's Plaza markets fragrances "inspired" by the hotel but not actually used in it.
The whiff of luxury is big business. You may not be able to bring your hotel room home (although some also sell their beds) but memories of your stay are only a sniff away.