Something in the air at CityCenter

September 11, 2007 3:54 AM
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On a rooftop high above the Las Vegas Strip, across the street from a one-third-scale reproduction of the New York skyline, a device in a small black box emits a fine chemical vapor. The perfume, if you will, enters the building’s ventilation system, and wafts into a large, circular room, the sales pavilion for MGM Mirage’s CityCenter.

The perfumed air — vanilla, paired with jasmine, lavender and rose; sweetened by coconut and peach; and enriched by sandalwood, amber and musk — is there by design, to help create an ambiance conducive to buying the multi-million dollar condominiums.

Tony Dennis, the executive vice president in charge of residential sales, says he knew that to persuade thousands of multimillionaires to spend that kind of money, he would need to appeal to "their emotions, psyche, heart and soul."

One key would be to employ the power of scent.

Instilling fragrance in the CityCenter salesroom seems quintessentially Las Vegas. But it’s really nothing new.

Over the years, nearly half the casinos on the Strip have used some form of aroma infusion into their ventilation system — the MGM Grand alone once employed nine different aromas.

The founder of a company that creates scents for businesses, including Las Vegas hotel/casinos, said that when walking on Las Vegas Boulevard, he can sometimes tell where a tourist has been by the way he smells. For instance, someone who emanates coconut is probably coming from Treasure Island.

The use of piped-in aromas to set a mood, promote products or position a brand is known as scent marketing. Its origin is uncertain, but the practice is on the rise. Advertising Age named it one of the top 10 trends to watch in 2007.

But do smells really help or make people spend money? Two of the best known, if not controversial, investigations of the topic were done by Alan Hirsch, a Chicago neurologist who is the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, a clinic and research group partly financed by the flavor and fragrance industry.

Over the past three decades, Hirsch has conducted more than 180 studies, and while many of the findings have been eyebrow-raising (the odor of pumpkin pie increases male sexual arousal, while that of jasmine raises bowling scores), none have drawn more attention than his work on scent marketing.

A few years ago, Hirsch wafted a pleasant smell into an area of slot machines at the Las Vegas Hilton. He checked the revenues for the weekend before and the weekend after and, verifying that there hadn’t been any casino-wide increase in revenue, determined that people shoveled 45 percent more money into the slots in the scented area.

At MGM’s CityCenter, the atmosphere inside the sales pavilion does seem to influence the mood of guests. The people strolling about are noticeably relaxed, exhibiting an air of pleasant distraction more common to Saturday morning at the shopping mall than to a sales office. It could also have been the low pulse of ambient music, and tall sales women with ice-pick heels, Victoria’s Secret bodies and Angelina Jolie lips.

"The entire goal is to make people feel comfortable," Dennis said. "If they feel comfortable, they’ll stay a little longer; if they stay longer, they’ll get to know us better; if they get to know us better, they’re more likely to buy."

Maybe he’s right. The Mandarin building’s units, available since January, are 90 percent sold; total sales at CityCenter has already exceeded $1.3 billion.

Keep in mind that this has been achieved against the backdrop of slumping home sales nationwide and a Las Vegas condo market that many analysts considered overbuilt.

The answer could be blowing in the wind, or wafting through the ventilation ducts.