Giving the gift of experience

June 12th, 2010 by Sandra Barron

Give him something he'll remember

A gift like no other gift

Instead of golf balls or bottles of whiskey for Fathers’ Day, dads in Japan this year may be getting time on the links or a day on a Ducati. “Experience gift catalogs” are gaining in popularity as an easy way to give unusual presents for all occasions.

“I think people are looking for something new,” says Tak Nishimura, CEO of Japan’s first experience gift catalog company. “It’s wonderful to give your mother carnations on Mothers’ day, but I think people like the idea of doing something more original, too. Flowers die. When you give someone an experience, that’s a memory that lasts forever.”

Traditional gift catalogs have been used as a way to give presents to guests at weddings or funerals or prizes to amateur sports winners since the late ’80s. The giver picks a price range and sends the giftee a catalog of items that are all the same pre-specified, undisclosed price. Depending on the brand and price range, the catalogs can include a huge variety of products from fruit, tea, wine and ice cream to jewelry, wallets and designer handbags. Names of popular catalogs, such as “Take Your Choice” and “Ring Bell,” hint at how they work: Pick an item, tell the catalog company, and it’s soon on the doorstep.

As with conventional gift catalogs, the experience giver determines the amount of the present, and the color-coded catalog contains only items that cost that much. At Sow Experience, they go from Blue, in which all the experiences are ¥5,250 to Silver, at ¥52,500. The catalogs, of course, don’t have prices in them. There are catalogs grouped by activity, like dining; occasion, like new baby; or type of recipient, like mother, boyfriend or couple. The activities can be as adventurous or relaxing as the recipient wants, from guided outdoor sports like canyoning and canoeing trips to quieter, safer pursuits like jeweled manicures or time in an oxygen capsule. Fitness buffs could have a yoga or bouldering session, while the fashion-inclined (or challenged) could choose an hour with a stylist. The pottery-throwing lesson is one of the most popular gifts now, Nishimura says. Gifts can be redeemed online.

Nishimura founded Sow Experience in 2005, fresh out of college and looking for a business idea. The concept was becoming popular in England at that time, and he thought it could work in Japan. From the initial 10 experiences, there are now about 100 (the most recent addition is a “doll fashion” class), with 30 new ones added since last year. He says he’s happy to see the swarm of competitors that has sprung up. Beliem, which covers similar options and price points as Sow Experience, will also organize group outings on horseback or cocktail parties at Tokyo’s frozen Icebar, and Iiyu specializes in package trips to hot spring and golf resorts – and ups the ante with experiences for up to ¥105,630.

Nishimura says sales are up 30% over last year, and the company is starting to expand beyond individuals to business-to-business sales: “If someone buys a new car, now, Toyota might give them our experience catalog to choose from as a thank-you present.”

Nishimura says the best part about giving an experience is that it can be the final little push to get someone to do something he’s always wanted to try but never gotten around to. So, what to get the salaryman who has everything? For Fathers’ Day, Sow Experience recommends paragliding, hot stone saunas, a shoe shine or shoe shine lessons. Hey, give a man a shoe shine, and he’s got shiny shoes. Give him shoe shine lessons, and that’s a present he can use for life.

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