The aromas of amber, sandalwood, oakmoss, and citrus that meet visitors at the door of the Hotel Emma is like the first chapter of a story, setting the scene: A candle-lit great room is alive with chatter of men in black woolen suits and top hats holding snifters of French brandy ... Timeworn leather chairs atop the finest sisal rugs await them.
The scent is called Milagros and the storyteller is Kevin Elkins. As owner of the San Antonio-based fragrance company Soular Therapy, Elkins wrote those words to describe the scent he created for the hotel in 2015.
From its start as a candlemaker, Soular Therapy designs and produces signature scents for homes and hotels around the globe and close to home, including the W Hotels Worldwide as well as Hotel Emma at the Pearl. It’s big business these days, with hotels from five-star to budget-priced spritzing away.
“Hotels have arguably never paid so much attention to how they smell, employing expert ‘noses’ from leading perfume makers to entice travelers with just the right amount of sandalwood,” wrote WSJ writer Scott McCartney. But the scent, as a customer loyalty tool, has to fit the brand, and that's where Soular Therapy comes in.
Soular Therapy is part of what Bloomberg reports is a $300 million scent-branding industry. It is the only company like it based in San Antonio, and with Elkins' nose for business, it has made a name for itself, one scent at a time.
For Hotel Emma, Elkins created the concept for a bespoke scent that has what he calls is a “brewhouse after-hours” vibe, one that is clean, dark, and romantic, matching the décor and atmosphere of the hotel and its origins.
“It is my ability to create elevated fragrance experiences, specifically tailored to a property’s aesthetic, location, build, and design materials as well as brand message,” Elkins said. “Hotel Emma is a perfect example of a bespoke fragrance which seems to naturally emanate from the interior space.”
Elkins, 53, has been in the fragrance business since he started marketing candles in 1994 under the company name Divino. A graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Elkins operated an antiques and art store on Hildebrand Avenue for several years, where he sold products from the Tyler Candle Co.
The theme for his first line of soy-based candles was founded in astrological aromatherapy, with candles named Heavenly Home Aries, Scorpio, Libra, and so on. Featured early on in a Vogue magazine article and sold in boutiques and stores such as Anthropologie, the popular candles inspired the Soular Therapy name that now represents the entire brand.
Soon, the candlemaker developed other lines and eventually began producing matching room sprays. Elkins turned to the stars again for inspiration in developing a sparkly body spray line, Glitz, which brought him more attention at trade shows. He landed upon his current business niche of hotel fragrances while at such a show in 2001.
Representatives from the W Hotels were so drawn to one of the unique scents Elkins had designed, they purchased it as the signature fragrance for its line of luxury hotels. The hotel still uses the Citron No. 5 scent in all its 52 properties, from Dubai to Hong Kong, and it can be purchased on the company website or Amazon for personal use at home.
The candle market became more saturated about the time Elkins' home and hotel fragrance business took off, he said. “When the economy turned and sales [on candles] just plummeted, I homed in on what was making me the most money without having a big labor force, and that was the room scent,” Elkins said. “So I focused on that and really built up the business with the W, and we ended up doing the ancillary products they sold at retail.”
Soon he was coming up with designer scents for The Valencia Group of hotels, Moinian Group developments in New York, Hotel Zaza in Dallas and Houston, and most recently The Arts Residences at the Thompson Hotel now under construction near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Since it opened three years ago, Hotel Emma has purchased more than 250 gallons of room fragrance, Elkins said.
His signature blends are so popular with hotel visitors, they are sold as sprays and candles at hotel gift shops. Hotel Emma’s Curio shop offers the Elkins-designed fragrance in room sprays and candles, retailing for between $30 and $55.
Until recently, most hotels relied on the housekeeping staff to dispense the scent using room sprays. But now hotels are eyeing new technology that uses cold air diffusers to push the scented air through nebulizers hooked up to the hotel’s HVAC system. Elkins recently purchased nebulizers and began testing them and determining how he will use them in his business.
In the contemporary Soular Therapy office and showroom behind the Pearl where Elkins meets with clients, a variety of room scents and candles is neatly displayed on stainless steel worktables adorned with vases of giant leaf stems. Modern furnishings blend with antique; Elkins’ colorful artwork punctuates the walls, and Bandito, a friendly blue heeler rescued as a neighborhood stray, keeps watch from under a desk.
Elkins had a vision for the space Soular Therapy would someday occupy and sold his home in Monte Vista in 2002 just in time to purchase the East Elmira Street warehouse. Since then, the location has given Elkins a bird's-eye view of the ongoing development that turned an abandoned industrial site into the destination the Pearl is today. Tax appraiser records show his building, which once housed a wholesale florist and a lighting company, is now valued at more than twice what it was in 2015.
“This is one of my first successful visualizations,” he said. “I imagined it and brought it into being.”
The back-office lab is a veritable olfactory factory where Elkins and his staff of four produce candles, store oils and fragrances, and fill customer orders. Shelves are neatly organized into collections of tester candles and scents, essential oils, bins of fine glitter in every color, and room-spray bottles ready for shipping. Metal drums filled with fragrance are lined up on the floor and hundreds of buckets marked vanilla, sugar cane, chocolate, and more are stacked nearly to the ceiling.
Like many people, Elkins naturally gravitates to scents that remind him of his childhood – the ocean, the forest floor, his grandmother’s Italian kitchen.
Of the scents he has designed, Elkins’ current favorite is Recuerdos, a spicy, woody scent inspired by another story backdrop: An underground, clandestine gathering is occurring on the outskirts of a brewery ...