Audrey Bernard Has a Nose for Travel

The sense of smell can transport us anywhere in the world, and it brings memorable moments wafting back, no matter where we are.

Notes of molasses and ginger are likely to spark joy for many people: They remind us of Grandma’s Christmas cookies and carry us straight back to her kitchen, where every year dozens of little gingerbread men would appear on the counter. For others, a whiff of Coppertone suntan lotion is equally soothing, bringing back memories of summers spent at the local beach. Entrepreneur and olfactory expert Audrey Bernard develops scents that evoke destinations around the world, exploring tourism through the sense of smell. Her startup, Stimulation Déjà Vu, combines cognitive science with creativity to stir up emotions that can take us back to the past or into the future. With many of us now daydreaming about our next travel adventure, we caught up with the Montrealer to discuss her nose for business, the beautiful olfactory memories she likes to recreate and her tips for finding comfort by simply following her nose.
 

enRoute Why is it that smells trigger such powerful, often emotionally charged memories?
 

Audrey Bernard Smell is a sense that is directly linked to our brain. It immediately activates our limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for emotions and memory. A particular smell will initially trigger an emotion, and then awaken a memory. And this type of memory truly allows us to travel, to immerse ourselves in a place we have visited in the past, or sometimes to project ourselves toward an unknown place. Smells leave permanent traces in our memory, because olfactory memory has the greatest capacity to store our recollections.
 

ER Where did your own passion for the sense of smell come from?
 

AB I have always had a very sensitive sense of smell. Even as a child, I already had a particular attitude toward perfume. I was a big fan of fragrances and collected bottles and little vials, but I never wore perfumes. I simply admired their smells and liked the feeling they gave me. I smelled things in order to experience an emotion and be carried away to different places. All I knew at the time was that certain smells made me feel good. I understood that the right smell could take you to another place. Every year, we spent Christmas holidays in Miami, and to this day, that smell of humidity, hot air and tropical plants that would hit me as I got off the plane reminds me of the holidays.

April 14, 2020
A business named Tropics in Miami, Florida
   Photo: Cody Board (Unsplash)

ER You’re right – it’s like I’m there! What led you to make the leap from marketing to science, later on?
 

AB It was when I had my olfactory-marketing company, an agency that used technology to conduct olfactory experiments, that I realized the scope and potential of the sense of smell and decided to dig deeper into the scientific side. I wanted to go beyond simply using a leather scent to help sell shoes. I put the key in the door, sought out experts in the field and together we launched health research projects in centres for the elderly. We developed scents to recall specific comforting memories, such as a walk in the mountains or the countryside after a rain, and that’s when we noticed the powerful impact of memory on patients’ well-being and an immediate drop in anxiety levels. By chance, I learned about certain innovations in the tourism industry, and one day I was asked: “How do you create an experience around a destination that can later evoke a memory for a visitor?” Like a lightning bolt, the world of Déjà Vu flashed before my eyes. We were going to use our noses to tell about destinations and bring emotions to life.
 

ER Then, is the ultimate goal of Déjà Vu to generate emotions? To recall a moment in the past? To offer a new way to travel?
 

AB Basically, Déjà Vu is a generator of memorable emotions. Once they’re triggered by smell, these positive emotions awaken a moment in the past and offer a new way of seeing the world. By developing fragrances for the tourism industry – the scent of Marseille, for example – we manage to transport a person who lives in another country to a particular destination and give them the desire to explore it, or in the case of someone who grew up there, to immerse them in fond memories of that place. In traditional perfumery, a fragrance is developed from a basic olfactory family (fruity, floral, spicy). Déjà Vu starts from a memory to create a formula.

Bottles of scents that come in wooden boxes from Stimulation Déjà Vu
   Photo: LaPresse/Marco Campanozzi

“We don’t test patchouli or bergamot, but instead a memory like the warm light of a summer day, in which you can find aromas inspired by the sea, by cultural diversity, by typical cuisine and maritime trade.”

ER Tell us how you go about it.
 

AB A first meeting with the client is always followed by an immersive visit, regardless of the nature of the project or the destination. For example, for the Marseille tourism board, we had to develop a vision of the “new Marseille.” I spent two days touring the city with a guide. I sniffed around, experienced life there, saw and absorbed the human side, met with shopkeepers, studied their accent (which I find very inspiring), admired the cliffs and bays, the entry points to the city and tasted the local bouillabaisse and fish soup. When I returned to Montreal, we got going on the first assemblages of scents and began testing them on participants. Our database includes basic memories that are linked to olfactory references. We don’t test patchouli or bergamot, but instead a memory like the warm light of a summer day, in which you can find aromas inspired by the sea, by cultural diversity, by typical cuisine and maritime trade.
 

ER Olfactory perceptions are so subjective that one odour can provoke a range of responses. How can you ensure that reactions are positive, rather than negative?
 

AB We measure the emotional impact of a particular memory using biometrics. Smells are highly perceptual, and that’s why we need to rely on scientific data. We’ve developed an algorithm that measures physical reactions using indicators such as heart rate, sweating and facial expression. We want to make sure we’re creating odours that generate positive rather than negative emotions. We look for joy and well-being, meanwhile keeping an eye out for negatives like sadness or disgust. The creation rarely comes together all at once, but biometrics allows us to say, for instance, that 85 percent of a sample tested prompts emotions of well-being, while 65% of subjects associate the smell with holidays.

Looking out a window into the port in Marseille, France
   Photo: Erin Doering (Unsplash)

ER So what is your most vivid olfactory travel memory?
 

AB Once again, I would have to mention Marseille. I had an unforgettable experience on my way up the escalator at the exit of the Vieux-Port metro station, which gives directly onto the city’s port. The contrast of light at the end of this long dark passage was extraordinary. That’s when I fell in love with Marseille – its light, its warmth, its salty air, subtle scent of fish and the smell of the burning sun. All of it made a deep impression on me. I spent an hour just admiring the view. It was wonderful, and I talk about it with as much emotion as if I were still there.
 

ER Now you’ve developed a set of five typical Montreal scents to showcase the city abroad. Tell us about it – what does Montreal smell like?
 

AB We wanted to tell the story of Montreal through its iconic institutions as well as other lesser-known places that would be interesting to discover through the sense of smell. In this box set, created in partnership with Tourisme Montréal, you’ll find Ville aux 100 Clochers (city of 100 steeples), Winter Lights, Food Truck Festival, Mount Royal in the Rain and Festival Mania. Winter Lights is my favourite. We wanted to evoke the cold of the Quebec winter, but also its comforting side. It was originally developed for people from France. We wanted a scent that proclaimed that Montreal is a city that doesn’t sleep in winter, that it’s dynamic and warm. There are green notes and light pine aromas. It’s fresh without being rural – it captures the city and its inhabitants.

Watching the fireworks in Montreal from the Jacques Cartier bridge
   Photo: Steve Courmanopoulos (Unsplash)

ER Déjà Vu has also developed an antibacterial spray to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. What makes this product different?
 

AB We wanted to help front-line employees, but we didn’t want to create just an ordinary antibacterial. We needed to generate an emotion that would take people on a trip while they’re engaging in this vital act of hygiene. Given the realities of isolation, we developed the formula in-house. We had to rely exclusively on our personal memories and the data we had – there was no question of testing it on participants. We brainstormed to identify the memories that comforted us, and we wanted to create a product whose olfactory references would have anti-anxiety properties, hence the green and fresh notes. In two weeks, we designed an antibacterial product featuring the smells of Quebec. It’s a three-in-one spray made of 85-percent alcohol that can be used to disinfect hands, surfaces and the ambient air while providing a relaxing sensation of freshness. Despite its alcohol content, the smell is exhilarating.
 

ER On that note, what is your advice for reducing stress and finding comfort? Can we take advantage of that direct link between smell and emotion?
 

AB Be aware that the sense of smell is a very emotional one and that you can have a relaxing or soothing moment simply by using your nose. Take advantage of this break to experiment with smells and discover what makes you feel good – whether it’s food, spices, essential oils or objects in your home – and notice how the sense of smell alters your perceptions of a time or place. Create a homey atmosphere with a diffuser, a candle or by opening a window. Reflect on the smells that bring back positive memories, and relive them with your family at a home scent workshop, by baking your grandmother’s cookies or by watering the garden. To me, it’s the memories associated with nature that are the most soothing. When I dive back into these memories by following my nose, it helps me to stay centred.
 
 

The Questionnaire

  • Dream seatmate My daughter Laurence, so that I can explore destinations with her while sharing my passion and building memorable moments together.

  • First travel memory The first time I smelled the sea, in Miami, when I was seven or eight years old. You never forget your first whiff of the sea.

  • Recent trip Paris and Marseille, for work.

  • Travel has the power to... Make us evolve.

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