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What's the smell? The Mahaffey Theater gets a signature scent

Mahaffey Theater officials hope the scent will persuade people to drink and mingle after shows.

Dirk Shadd/tbt*

Mahaffey Theater officials hope the scent will persuade people to drink and mingle after shows.

Walk outside the theater and smell salty water, crisp wind, pavement. Walk through the doors, and you're sniffing nutty fruit salad.

What's that smell? It's "Coconut Mango," the new signature scent of the Mahaffey Theater.

The venue, owned by the city of St. Petersburg, got new management this year. A $2 million renovation brought deep cleaning, leather couches, a designer suite for celebrities, purple chandeliers, new carpet and plasma televisions. The goal is for customers to stick around, have a drink and mingle after the show.

But what makes people stay put? Our senses of smell run deep, scientists say, past the point of logic and reason.

Those grass trimmings on Saturday make you think of childhood. That sizzling fireplace wood evokes winter memories. Scents make us crave things. Newborn babies are drawn to the scent of breast milk, even when they don't know what it is.

"When we're in the womb, we start to smell," said Ed Burke, director of marketing for ScentAir, the company perfuming the Mahaffey. "It's how we associate experiences. It's very powerful. It's very primal. At the end of the day, it's also simple. If it smells better, we think that's a good thing."

A former Walt Disney World Imagineer developed ScentAir's technology, atomizing natural and synthetic fragrances through air-conditioning units. The service starts at $100 a month and goes way up. ScentAir wouldn't say what it charged the Mahaffey, which is funded by taxpayer and private money.

The scent level can be dialed up or down, in case someone gags on it.

"Scent is very intimate, it's very personal, it's very subjective," said Burke. "You're probably not going to elicit one particular response."

ScentAir pumped "Sugar Cookie" and "Waffle Cone" through a stairwell at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, luring customers to a basement ice cream shop. They used "Coconut Beach" and "Ocean" at Florida Hospital's Seaside Imaging to calm MRI patients.

At Bloomingdale's stores, ScentAir funneled "Baby Powder" through the infant department and "Lilac" through lingerie. They sent "Bubblegum" through shops at Disney World and "Shrek Fart" through a ride at Universal Studios. That one smells like it sounds.

The Mahaffey's managers liked the smell of "Coconut Spice," used at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. They contacted ScentAir.

"This entire renovation is about the sensory experience of walking through the doors," said the Mahaffey's general manager Joe Santiago. "The scent is one part of that. We want people to leave here thinking, 'What a beautiful facility.' "

Scent experts — called "the nose" in the industry — developed Mahaffey's aroma with the city in mind.

"This is a waterfront property," said Burke. "In terms of the city, there's the new Dali museum, there's art deco, kind of older design, but also this mixture of contemporary design. Coconut is this iconic note we all kind of recognize."

They added rich vanilla and nuttier spices. Not right. They played with orange. Too sweet. Then …

Mango! Of course.

"The two main notes are the mango and the coconut," said Burke. "There is sort of a citrus note in there. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a bit of grapefruit. It's really nice and dry."

The theater will use about two 2-liter jugs of fragrance oil a month. The signature scent could change throughout the year, Santiago said, depending on the season.

What if people can't handle smells? If a barrage of odors gets to be too much, Burke said, lift your arm to your nose and smell your own skin. It's the ultimate olfactory cleanser, and a comforting one at that.

What's the smell? The Mahaffey Theater gets a signature scent 11/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 24, 2011 3:30am]
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