- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sam’s Club is a popular place to stock up on soda by the case, tires for the car or a year’s supply of razor blades.

The discount store is also in the business of intangibles — offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences as holiday gifts for the person who truly has everything.

Take the two packages that sold online last month. It took less than a minute for someone to snap up a behind-the-scenes tour at a NASA shuttle launch paired with a Lithium-powered Smart car for $75,000. A VIP trip to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing sold for $35,000. A meeting with cooking maven Paula Deen sold for $3,800.

When the folks behind a chain of warehouse stores are offering experiences rather than items, it could be a sign that Americans have too much stuff. Business is down on luxury gift-giving this year but up more than 10 percent on luxury experiences, reports Unity Marketing, a research firm.

“Offering experiences is a trend that continues to be important to people,” says Susan Koehler, Sam’s Club spokeswoman. “These are things they can share with family.”

Experience gifts are enough in demand that several businesses specialize in setting up customers or their loved ones with special opportunities. The Chicago firm Signature Days (www.signaturedays.com) offers more than 3,500 experience opportunities in 50 major U.S. cities. Signature Days can arrange quirky outings, such as a bipartisan Washington tour in a battery-operated car complete with donkey and elephant horns, starting at $40; private cooking classes starting at $75; or more typical gift offerings such a personal training session or a massage.

Want something that gets the adrenaline pumping a little more? How about being a fighter pilot for a day? Signature Days can arrange a three-hour event flying a fighter plane with an instructor ($1,195) or driving a stock car ($129 and up).

“You are flying that plane 95 percent of the trip,” says Signature Days President Chris Widdess. “We had a brother and sister up there in mock combat. Experiences are very much a social connector because you are probably going to take a friend or a loved one.”

Cloud 9 Living (www.cloud9living.com), based in Colorado, has about 1,700 experiences from which to choose. One of the most popular in this region is the hot-air balloon ride in Woodstock, Va. (about $540 for two people), says founder John Augst. Cloud 9 can arrange golf trips to Pinehurst, N.C., a bartending clinic, fly-fishing charters, Segway tours, triathlon coaching and kayaking on the Potomac, among other experiences.

Mr. Augst says 15 percent of Cloud 9’s sales this year have been for its stock-car-riding experience ($119).

If you are in the market for something truly unusual, experience firms have that, too. Cloud 9 offers a diving-with-the-sharks package. For $3,100 per person, a private plane will fly up to 10 people from San Diego to Mexico for five days of cage diving among great white sharks.

If money is no object, Cloud 9 can set up you and 26 friends on a weightless flight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For $95,000 (or $3,750 per person), a Boeing 727 takes passengers above 24,000 feet. That’s where the parabolic flight begins — the plane initially is pulled up to approximately 45 degrees “nose high” then is “pushed over” the top to reach the zero-gravity segment. With each parabola, there is zero gravity for 25 to 30 seconds.

Still can’t find the ultimate experience? Here are a few more ideas:

• A five-day stay at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp (www.rockandrollfantasycamp.com) in Hollywood this February. The $7,995 price tag includes 10 hours a day of jamming instruction and visits from members of Yes, the Rolling Stones, Kiss and Bad Company. The final product? A rock concert, of course.

• Also in February: Baltimore Orioles Fantasy Camp (https://baltimore.orioles. mlb.com). Eight days and seven nights of batting practice and instruction from former Orioles at the team’s spring training site in Sarasota, Fla. The $4,395 cost includes airfare, accommodations, a game with and against former Orioles, all playing equipment, “big league” treatment (your uniforms are washed for you) and a reunion game at Camden Yards with other fantasy camp players.

• Closer to home, Chesapeake Sailing School in Annapolis (www.sailingschool.com) offers one-day family introduction-to-sailing courses ($425) or two-day basic learn-to-sail programs for $365.

• If someone on your list loves poker, sign up him or her for the World Poker Tour Boot Camp in Las Vegas (www.wptbootcamp. com). The $1,695 price tag includes meals, accommodations and clinics on poker skills such as calculating odds, avoiding dead draws and bluffing.

• Does Mom need to get away? How about a women-only rafting trip out West? An intermediate-level, four-day rafting and yoga trip with Holiday River Expeditions (www.bikeraft.com) on the San Juan River in Idaho goes for $915.

• The foodie on your list surely will appreciate cooking lessons with acclaimed Washington chef Roberto Donna. The chef holds small-group Italian cooking demonstration-and-participation lessons at Galileo Laboratorio in the District. One-time lessons start at $119 per lesson but include wine and food (www.galileodc.com). Chef Jacques Haeringer at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls gives demonstration lessons in French cooking. Lessons are on weekends for $90 per person, including wine (www.chef jacques.com).

Other edible and local ideas: classes at the Greater Washington Wine School (www.gwwsllc.com). For $45 per class and up, oenophiles can learn about wines of Italy, wines of France or pairing wine with food, among other offerings. The Wine Tasting Association (www.winetasting.org) offers private wine tastings for small groups.

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