Teri Thompson isn’t shopping for stylish sweaters or the latest gadgets this holiday season. Her daughter working in New York wants help paying for an airline ticket to Sweden. And her college-age daughter in Philadelphia wants to plan a National Parks tour with friends.
“They want to explore,” Ms. Thompson said, “not just collect more stuff.”
It is known as the gift of experience — in demand by people of all ages, but particularly popular with young adults. And travel companies of all types and sizes are packaging their services for holiday gift-giving.
The season’s promotions kicked off with Thanksgiving weekend online sales by major hotel chains and airlines. But any type of travel company is likely to be engaged in holiday marketing.
The Waterfall Resort, a former salmon cannery in Ketchikan, Alaska, is using email and social media to offer its Gift Wrap a Fishing Trip holiday promotion.
Immersion Journeys, a company that plans tours in India and Africa, notes on its website that food lovers might enjoy the gift of a South African bicycling and wine tour, while budding teenage photographers might prefer a safari.
Outdoors enthusiasts who have traveled with the Backroads company will receive an email offering gift certificates for future biking, hiking or multisport trips.
The National Retail Federation’s consumer holiday spending survey indicated last year that 37 percent of consumers would like to receive a gift of experience. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, that number exceeded 50 percent.
Terry Youngelson, a travel consultant with the Travelong agency in Summit, N.J., says her clients give the gift of travel because the recipient’s enjoyment lasts longer than when receiving a physical present.
“There’s the anticipation leading up to the trip, the experience itself, and then the memories of it,” Ms. Youngelson said. Giving books and maps related to the destination can add to the excitement.
Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the happiness generated by physical items versus experiences.
“Material objects are all like French vanilla ice cream,” he said. “The first taste is great, but by the seventh taste, it is cardboard.” That is why the gift of travel is a better value, according to Dr. Seligman.
A newly published study conducted jointly by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and Cornell University, found that recipients felt more grateful when thinking back on experiential gifts they received like travel, than when they recalled things like clothing or electronics.
Cost is a consideration, of course. Melodie Hilton, director of marketing and public relations at the Napa River Inn in Napa, Calif., said that as the economy had improved in the last few years, the inn had been selling more of the gift certificates promoted during the winter holidays.
Currency exchange rates matter, too. VisitBritain, the national tourism board for Britain has been using the home page of its website to tell readers “why travel to Britain is the best holiday gift of all,” and to offer a link to a gift guide. Diana Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the site, predicted that the favorable exchange rate for Americans and Canadians would spur purchases this holiday season.
“A trip to Britain is 20 percent less expensive than it was a year ago,” Ms. Gonzalez said.
If Only is a company specializing in unusual experiences like a $17,500 trip for two to a San Francisco 49ers game that includes game tickets, hotel and transportation on the team plane.
The company “is pulling out all the stops for this holiday season” to deliver the message that “experiences are richer than things” according to Trevor Traina, chief executive of If Only.
Besides using ads online and offline, including bus banners, the company is joining American Express and Neiman Marcus in creating experiences their customers can purchase.
If Only also just announced that Sotheby’s had become an investor, a first foray into the “experience economy” for the nearly 300-year-old auction house better known for Monets and Munchs. The two companies collaborated on a recently concluded 10-day online auction of 20 experiences including a trip into the Grand Canyon and an aerial photography lesson given in a helicopter flying over Los Angeles or New York.
Mr. Traina said a popular and less expensive item on the If Only website was an $85 class on how to photograph food with an iPhone, which could be useful preparation for someone embarking a trip.
The gift of family travel can benefit both giver and recipient. Romney Humphrey, a playwright in Seattle, and her husband are offering a trip to their four children and their families to accompany them to Hawaii.
“It takes some of the pressure off of holiday-season logistics,” Ms. Humphrey said, and “ensures we all have quality time together.”
Some give the gift of travel to introduce new generations of family members to favorite destinations. For those who aren’t sure when or where the recipients might like to travel, sites like BnBFinder.com offer the purchase of gift certificates with no blackout or expiration dates, that allow the recipient to choose from 1,500 bed-and-breakfasts in North America.
Of course, the gift of travel doesn’t have to be as extravagant as a photo safari or multigenerational vacation. Local experiences are also an option.
The Best of Brooklyn half-day food and culture tour — which takes guests through Brooklyn neighborhoods, explaining each area’s history and stopping to sample ethnic foods — is offering gift certificates at 10 percent off.
People near the central mountains of Nevada can give the gift of a Nevada Northern Railway’s hands on history experience that allows guests to operate a locomotive’s steam engine or ride with the engineer.
Such gifts are relatively affordable. For example, the yearlong pass to the National Parks and Federal Recreation areas that Ms. Thompson may buy for her daughter can be had for $80.
As for Ms. Thompson herself, she says that as a free bird (the new and more upbeat term for empty nester) she values time with her family more than any physical gift.
“Give me a bike ride, ballet tickets or a road trip.”
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