Season of sharing is here

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

As parcels under the Christmas tree go, this particular one is likely to look a bit small and not particularly exciting. But as the sayings go, size isn't everything and you should definitely not judge a book by its cover.

Unwrap one of these little presents on Christmas Day and you'll likely find more than you bargain for: a day on a pirate ship or racing car, a weekend retreat at a luxury Thai spa or perhaps even a recording studio.

To be precise, what you'll be getting is an 'experience gift': a growing trend in gift-buying that gives you a fresh experience to enjoy rather than a new watch or handbag.

Just two Christmases ago you would have struggled to find an experience gift in Hong Kong. However, over the last 12 months, a number of specialist 'experience gift providers' have appeared in the city, offering to take the burden of getting it right from the shoulders of weary Christmas shoppers.

Red Packet appeared at the end of last year, followed by Spoilt in February and TaDa! in October.

Browse the websites of these three companies and you will find a huge range of experiences that they claim will ensure the gift you choose will put a smile on the face of the recipients this festive season.

For friends and loved ones who enjoy an adrenaline rush or the great outdoors, there is the chance to go kite-surfing or sailing in Hong Kong, drive a Formula 1 racing car at the Zhuhai International Circuit, try out snowboarding in Shenzhen, or enjoy a camping and farming experience on Lantau.

Foodies can enjoy a cookery class with a master chef, dine out at select restaurants or indulge in a chocolate experience, while the more creative can learn how to do up a scrapbook, take part in a filmmaking or photography class, limber up at a pole-dancing session or even record their CD or life-story documentary.

If pampering of the body and soul is more the recipient's kind of thing, then perhaps they'll enjoy a facial or massage, a yoga class or Thai boxing course.

It's an entirely new concept to Hong Kong, says Gerard Belicha, founder and managing director of Red Packet. 'We launched just before Christmas with only a couple of outlets. Now we have more than 70. It has really grown exponentially.

'So far the feedback has been phenomenal and we have seen enthusiasm and excitement. Now, after just one year of existence, we have distributors and companies wanting to be our experience partners approaching us.'

Belicha may be right in his optimism. An annual survey carried out by American Express in Britain about the experience-gift market found that 35 per cent of consumers planned to give such presents last year, compared with 20 per cent in 2001. It was in Britain that the concept was first born and quickly spread to the rest of Europe.

According to Laurent Crouet, general manager of TaDa!, France now boasts one of the biggest experience gift markets in Europe.

'In France the market was worth more than Euro200 million [HK$2.06 billion] in 2009,' Crouet says. 'This year it is likely to be around Euro300 million. According to some estimates, it will be worth up to Euro600 million in two years.'

He believes there is no reason to suggest Hong Kong will not embrace the concept and says the company has done extensive research prior to launch to ensure the packaging and marketing of the experiences are customised to the city's consumers, both locals and expatriates.

'We are selling experiences but we are also selling choices. These are two things that are really new to Hong Kong. The difficult thing for us was explaining to people how they can offer a gift that is not tangible.

'Chinese culture is geared towards the tangible. That is why people here invest massively in property. They don't want to invest in something that is not tangible. That was our the first barrier.'

Both Crouet and Belicha say the beauty of the experience gifts they sell are the choices on offer, which they claim ensure there is something to suit everyone.

'A lot of people in Hong Kong already have a lot of possessions. They are looking for more intangible treats and experiences and something new,' Belicha says.

'People are a little bit tired of hampers, wine and candles. Our product is a breath of fresh air. It is something new, something unique which enhances both the life of the person who gives it and the person who receives it.'

Crouet says the sharing aspect of an experience gift is part of the appeal. 'We have a lot of experiences that you can share with your friends and loved ones. That is one of the big differences between here and in Europe. In Europe, experience gifts offer more experiences for an individual. Here we provide a range of experiences you can share with two to 20 people.'

According to Michelle Lam, founder of Spoilt, the experience-gift customer tends to be between 25 and 40, with the most popular choices being the chocolate masterclass, a session in the recording studio making a CD, the flight simulator and the Formula 1 driving experience.

'We have husbands buying anniversary gifts for their wives,' Lam says. 'We had one man who bought the chocolate masterclass to impress a girl on their first date. He came back to us and said it was the best first date ever.

'The difference between a traditional gift and an experience gift is that when you give someone an experience, you are giving a day out which produces memories. You can also go with your recipient and share the experience.

'There is a lot of psychological research that shows that generally people are happier when they spend money on leisure and experience rather than material objects.'

It may sound like the perfect Christmas gift solution for all those who spend the weekend trawling the shops and returning empty-handed. But Lam says it is not a lazy option and that it still requires thought in choosing. She believes the person who unwraps an experience on Christmas Day - rather than a wrong-coloured sweater or a book they have already read - will not be disappointed.

'There is nothing to compete with a memory. The thing about a memory is that it lasts forever,' Lam says. 'You can tell people about it, you can't break it or lose it. It is with you for life.'