Casino acceptance of scent marketing as just another sign of how competitive this industry has become, and how operators will try almost anything to gain and maintain an edge.

When I first started reporting on the casino industry roughly two decades ago, one of the more controversial news items I remember covering was the belief that casino operators were wafting specialized, secretly-formulated scents through resort HVAC systems to make people gamble more. For a while, it was all the rage in some news outlets; a tale of how big, bad business operators were duping unsuspecting customers into more slot handle pulls and dice throws.

But as with most sensationalized stories, the reality rarely matches the hype. Indeed, casinos were pumping various scents onto gaming floors, as early as the 1970s, according to some sources. However, these scents did little to awaken a hidden, nascent desire to wager; their main goal was to tame the thousands of competing smells that permeate big-box gaming floors then and now-cigarette smoke, food smells, body odor from thousands of people passing through an enclosed space that’s open 24 hours a day. If people happened to gamble more when a certain scent was pumped into the air, it’s likely because they stayed and played an extra hand or two instead of running outside for a breath of fresh air.

Subsequent studies have done little to dispel this basic dynamic, at least in my mind. One report in 1995 said gamblers spent 45 percent more money in a floral-scented gaming area as opposed to an unscented one. I don’t think it was the host of golden daffodils that created the urge to gamble; just the fact that one space smelled better, they stayed longer and played more. It’s kind of like eating donuts-you’re bound to have more than one if you’re seated in a sweet-smelling bakery as opposed to, say, a plain, old smelly public restroom.

Anyway, from such humble beginnings a massive new industry has sprung-scent marketing. According to Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Scent Marketing Institute, providing proprietary smells to retail, hospitality and entertainment establishments is now a $200 million a year business and growing. The casino industry can attest to this-companies such as AromaSys and ScentAir have carved profitable niches in the gaming resort sphere. One such company-Micro Fragrance, the Japan-based service provider for Milwaukee-based ambient scent producer Prolitec-is a finalist for the Scent Marketing Institute’s Harald Vogt Scent Marketer of the Year Award for a scent it designed for pachinko parlors and other people-intensive venues. According to a press release, the fragrance “calls to mind vibrant and ripe pomegranates mingled with bright citrus notes of lemon, lime, mandarin, and a touch of ginger.”

Sounds to me like a new 7UP flavor, but I digress. I see gaming acceptance of scent marketing as just another sign of how cutthroat competitive this industry has become, and how operators will try almost anything to gain and maintain an edge. Often, this involves pricey investments in technology, entertainment, retail and other such large-ticket expenditures that in all likelihood will eventually lead to more customers coming through the door and staying longer, which ultimately means more bottom-line profit.

However, there is a less expensive way to accomplish at least one of these goals. It’s hinted at in Dennis Conrad’s column on page 14-customer service. Indeed, it’s often interpersonal exchanges between a property’s staff and its customers that keep patrons at a facility longer and booking return trips. Yet for all the prowess casino operators have as job creators, you rarely hear about a resort investing as much time and money in employee hiring and training as they do in, say, the newest slot or latest CRM technology. No great mystery as to why-products and technology have clearly demonstrable ROI; service-oriented practices, not so much.

Still, every now and then I hear or read about a facility that’s re-inventing dollars and energy into upgrading staff and service. To me it’s effort well spent-a handshake and kind actions can go a long way to clearing up a toxic atmosphere.