Office Aromas Now a Hot New Amenity to Draw Workers Back

Building owners see dollars in arranging just the right scents for common areas, but there are risks

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With workers having discovered that they have the option to do their jobs remotely and don’t have to be umbilically tethered to their workplace, office landlords are leaving nothing to chance.

Not even how their buildings smell.

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There’s been a surge of demand from real estate owners for pleasant fragrances to make the air a little fresher and the workplace a little more comforting and energizing, says Allison Lobay, global account manager for Air Aroma, a New York-based company that markets scents to companies that want smells to be part of their corporate signature. 

Now, let it not be assumed that aroma has a special place in companies’ strategies to get their money’s worth out of the offices they rent. But it is part of an overall strategy that also includes outdoor terraces, gourmet food and beverage, fitness opportunities, places to store bikes, even golf simulators and rooftop beekeeping. It’s part of a strategy to make the workplace more exciting and better than sitting on your couch.

“Here in New York City, for example, real estate companies are interested in scenting the building itself, as opposed to just the individual tenant spaces,” Lobay said. “There are lots of vacant office spaces these days. So what can the real estate companies do to attract tenants? How can you make your building more appealing than the building next door?”

Some clients she named include CBRE, the world’s largest real estate services company, which has a large property management division; Oxford Properties, the real estate arm of Ontario’s government employees retirement system, and which co-developed Hudson Yards; Coretrust Capital Partners, an office investor; and luxury real estate impresario Michael Shvo’s Shvo company, which of late has made big plays in the office sector.

Scenting commercial real estate is common and time-honored in the hospitality sector, said Peter Miscovich, executive managing director for strategy and innovation at JLL, like CBRE a huge global commercial property brokerage.

“In many of the boutique hotels and luxury hotels, (they’ve) all developed scent profiles, and some of them are very successful,” Miscovich said. “We’ve seen this across the hospitality sector, we’ve seen it in retail spaces.”

For example, at Resorts World in Las Vegas, the company employs Air Aroma to provide scents throughout the property. It also contracts with Aircuity of Norwood, Mass., to monitor its air “through hundreds of sensors throughout the property,” a spokesman said in an email. While casinos might be famous for cigarette and cigar smoke, monitors see to it that patrons never have to breathe stale air or foul smells.

“Our largest markets are higher education and life sciences where there are labs that bring in 100 percent outside air, and therefore optimizing airflow can reduce their HVAC energy use by 50 percent or more,” Aircuity spokeswoman Sarah Callahan said in an email. Aircuity filters also reduce carbon emissions and create “a healthier environment,” she said.

“We are also installed in K-12 schools, office buildings and public assembly spaces like casinos. We have definitely seen an increased interest around indoor air quality due to the pandemic, but I don’t have an exact percentage to provide,” Callahan said.

The Marriott hotel chain also employs aromas as part of its marketing strategy. According to an emailed statement from Matthew Boettcher, its vice president for brand operations, all 30 of Marriott’s Bonvoy brands have a designated scent, some of which are available for purchase at Marriott Bonvoy boutiques. It’s been part of the chain’s strategy for more than 20 years.

“Scent is part of creating these distinct sensory journeys to help distinguish each brand and create a memorable experience for every guest,” Boettcher said in the statement.

Scents are most commonly used in lobbies, public restrooms and fitness centers, he said. Smells “must be managed so they are impactful, yet subtle,” he said, so they “add a delicate moment that is accretive to the overall brand experience.”

Scents in hotels are so popular that selling them to guests via candles, diffusers and sprays is not uncommon, Lobay said.

Some scents are associated with improved productivity. In the office, citrus fragrances are used to energize people or help them feel happy, Lobay said. If bosses want to soothe employees who are anxious about coming back to the office, lavender might be more appropriate, she said, for a more “calming, relaxing, comforting” effect.

Miscovich said peppermint can be “good for concentration and to aid in alertness.” 

At Brookfield Property Partners, one of the world’s largest owners of commercial real estate with office buildings on five continents, scents are not used. A spokeswoman did say that Citrovia, an outdoor garden dominated by a lemon scent, was opened in 2021 at Manhattan West, Brookfield’s high-rise office and residential development in the Hudson Yards neighborhood. The aim was to “elevate the construction experience,” where there were completed buildings mixing with those still under construction, the spokeswoman said. The garden has since closed.

One caveat is that some people are allergic to scents and the ingredients used to derive them, said Miscovich. A bad reaction could pave the way for a costly lawsuit, something companies would do almost anything to avoid.

“There is this risk that introducing a scent with the best intentions to help enable concentration, to help create calm, if you have even a small percentage of folks who have an allergic reaction, or have a negative reaction, that would be problematic,” he said. “And, given the current environment, most of the folks in leadership or senior human resources are seeking to be very careful.

“I mean even the smell of coffee, believe it or not, is getting attention,” Miscovich said. “Yes, we’re over the COVID pandemic crisis, but 400 to 500 people a day are still dying of COVID in this country. I have several HR folks who are still very concerned about congregating folks into densely packed offices. Introducing a fragrance into that may cause more complexity and more challenge than good.”

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