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July 7, 2015

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If it smells like Northern Italy, it must be Bellagio

The very real - and carefully researched - world of casino aromas

Why do casinos smell like they do? No, not the smell of menthols, sticky drinks and desperation. That's everywhere. Rather, why does the Bellagio smell like the Bellagio and why does the Venetian smell like an old man who has been wearing the same cologne for 40 years and steadily adding more as his tolerance grows?

The simple answer is that there are metal devices the size of breadboxes attached to the ventilation systems of nearly every Strip resort. The boxes vaporize highly aromatic and shockingly expensive oils into the ducts, where the airflow dilutes and distributes them. The first such systems in Las Vegas were installed into the Mirage in the fall of 1991 by Mark Peltier, president of a company called AromaSys. Since then, the systems have spread up and down the Strip and now Peltier has competitors.

But a better question is why would anything so profit-minded as a casino bother?

It's because humans are wired so that smell is a weird and powerful sense. Smell and its sister sense, taste, have quick access to your emotional conditioning, your sexual urges and your memories. It's why the smell of a familiar dish can transport you to your mothers kitchen or a perfume can return you to a lover's arms. It's also why many neuroscience papers include pretentious little Proust quotes.

You can see why it's so tempting to use scents in a casino.

But smell is tricky. It's not that everyone smells something different — scents are the same volatile chemical compounds for everyone. The problem is, smell is tied up with your memories. For instance, Peltier has a good friend who loves the smell of skunk because the first time she smelled it, she was on a pleasant trip to her grandmother's house. Every time she smells skunk, she remembers that day and is happy.

"There's no expression in our genes that says you will like this smell and not the other," Peltier says.

Still, Peltier has some guidelines that work for most people most of the time. Citrus smells are refreshing. Floral smells are relaxing. Herbaceous smells are usually relaxing but can also be invigorating, especially peppermint. Cedar and other wood smells relax and sooth. By blending these various smells, Peltier and his competitors evoke moods or environments.

The environments vary throughout hotels, from lobbies to spas to casinos. In most of the world, Peltier and AromaSys try to make the hotels smell like the ideal version of their location, so that in south Florida he uses citrus scents and at a Colorado ski resort he'll use woodsy scents. But in Las Vegas, each resort supplied by AromaSys has a signature theme. The Mirage smells Polynesian, Mandalay Bay smells Southeast Asian and the Bellagio has the scent of Northern Italy. The Wynn and Encore "are very unusual, you may never smell anything like that in the world."

"Mr. Wynn," Peltier says, "has extraordinary sensory ideas and knows what he wants. It's more of a co-creative process with him."

And the Venetian, Mr. Peltier, who is responsible for that smell?

Well, AromaSys is. It's called "Seduction" and features a very significant amount of musk and is described as "strong, soothing and sensuous."

"I actually think it's turned up a little too strong, but the management insists on it being that way and actually kind of resented me offering my opinion," Peltier says, before adding that the Venetian is a "great and loyal customer" and "They sell a lot of it as room sprays and candles, so what do I know?"

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