Presents that are outside the box

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

They don’t take much space under the tree. But look for more fantasies and long-sought “experiences” showing up this Christmas morning.

Instead of sweaters, toasters and paperweights, many adults will be receiving surfing lessons, parachute jumps, spa visits, gourmet meals and exotic vacations as gifts this year.

It’s especially true for baby boomers, who seem to have all the household necessities, everyday apparel and appliances they want. Now, shoppers -- young and old -- are in the market for one-time adventures.

“More and more, they’re looking to create memories, in particular things that are different and unique,” said Lois Huff, senior vice president at consulting and research firm Retail Forward.

That’s what Tristan Wimmer was after when he decided to purchase a $300 bungee jumping expedition in Azusa for his fiancee, Meredith Wardy, who was afraid of heights.

“Giving something material just didn’t seem to have much weight,” said the 22-year-old Marine from San Clemente. “I figured an experience we could share would be better.”

More than one-quarter of all people giving gifts this year will give an experience, up from 20% last year, said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a consumer research firm based in Stevens, Pa. On average, consumers will each spend about $950 total on Christmas gifts this year, according to her research.

“People are realizing they have more than enough material goods,” Danziger said. “But gifts that people will experience last forever” as memories, she said.

Danziger, who will give her husband a wine tasting at a museum for Christmas, said that as more consumers looked to give one another experiences, businesses were accommodating the demand. Restaurants, spas and companies such as Ticketmaster are beginning to provide easy ways for customers to purchase experiences as gifts.

And then there are the companies that focus on experiential gifts for the creative, wealthy or just plain crazy.

Take, for instance, the $1.8-million Virgin Galactic Charter to space (not available until 2009) offered in Neiman Marcus’ Christmas book or the $2,650 five-day shark expedition offered by Chicago-based company Signature Days.

“We’re the typical males who never had any idea of what to get people -- we were tired of buying watches and sweaters and shirts,” Signature Days Vice President Chris Widdess said. “We think that a memorable experience makes a fantastic gift.”

Signature Days has promoted its experiences in CVS drugstores, Wal-Marts and Costcos across the country, evidence that it’s not just marketing to the upscale consumer.

The company, which was founded in June 2004, sold 5,000 experiences last year. This year, it will exceed 35,000, which it provides in the 51 largest U.S. cities, Widdess said.

Some of the choices are unique to the regions where they are sold, such as a Los Angeles option to work out with Jason Kozma, Mr. America 2004 ($500 for two sessions) or stunt-driving school ($2,500). Others, such as massages or personal chefs, are nationwide.

Businesses such as Signature Days and Boulder, Colo.-based Cloud 9 Living drew their inspiration from Europe, where people have been giving one another experiences for years, said Cloud 9 co-founder and Chief Executive Adam Michaels.

In Britain, Red Letter Days provides such options as the Rasul Experience for Two, in which, according to the company’s website, “in total privacy you apply colored medicinal chakra muds to each other’s bodies.”

Cloud 9 was founded to accommodate what Michaels saw in this country as “an overall shift in society from wanting material possessions to wanting life experiences.”

Others say people have always given one another experiences in the U.S., just not through the companies that are arranging them today. Neiman Marcus’ Christmas book, published since 1926, has long featured experiences such as becoming a Radio City Rockette for a day or riding a Harley-Davidson through the Southwest.

Neiman Marcus has always tried to offer its customers unique experiences, but it’s a task that is becoming more difficult as charity auctions, contests and independent companies begin to offer opportunities for customers to buy or win unique experiences on their own, spokeswoman Ginger Reeder said.

For the last few years, customers have been calling Ticketmaster’s customer service department requesting ways to buy gifts for others over the Internet, spokeswoman Bonnie Poindexter said. Last month, the company unveiled an online gift card just in time for the holidays.

“People have been buying balloon rides for each other for as long as I’ve been in business,” said Dominic Chemello, the owner of Temecula-based D&D Ballooning, which has been around for about 30 years. The company offers different packages to suit the balloon-riding wishes of holiday customers, including the Marriage Proposal ride, in which a ground-level sign pops the question, and the Mile High ride, which allows amorous couples the privacy to do what they wish in a balloon.

Patrick Murphy, the owner of Venice-based surf school Learn to Surf LA, said his customers bought surf lessons as gifts both independently and through companies such as Signature Days. Most people who receive the gift of a surf lesson have expressed interest in learning but never got around to buying a lesson for themselves, he said.

“Sometimes it takes somebody else to give a little push to make someone do it,” he said.

Learn to Surf LA gets an added boon from people who receive lessons as a gift: They often come back to learn more, paying out of their own pocket.

Of course, experiences aren’t for everyone. Some gift receivers prefer material gifts that last forever to experiences that last just a few hours.

Christine Sherry, a 32-year-old Westside resident, was given a helicopter ride over Los Angeles for her fifth wedding anniversary. She loved the 45-minute ride, but when asked whether she’d want to receive experiences instead of material gifts in the future, she paused.

“I’m a girl, so that’s a tough question,” she said. “I definitely like the material things too.”

Edna Lamberson, a 67-year-old Hancock Park retired caterer, buys spa gifts for friends and family members for holidays, birthdays, graduations and just about any other occasion for which gifts are given. She likes giving friends facials and massages at Le Petite Retreat Day Spa in Los Angeles because unlike a piece of jewelry or a sweater, she knows they’ll like it.

She first gave spa treatments as gifts after frequenting Le Petite and liking the experience so much that she wanted to share it with friends who might not otherwise splurge.

“A lot of people won’t spend the money on themselves,” she said. “It’s a special treat.”