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Making Gifts Exciting

Sterling’s Excitations Inc. offers gifts of experience.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Kim AuBuchon and Ian Landy are now suggesting that the traditional gifts of chocolates, flowers and candlelight dinners, while safe, might be a bit dull. The relatively new Sterling-based company they co-founded offers more than 1,000 gifts for sale, all so unconventional that they cannot be packaged in a box.

Excitations Inc., which launched in late 2005, is not into material goods. What this company sells is experience.

Rather than giving her perfume, suggests the company’s latest press release, let her try her hand at creating her own scent at a fragrance bar. Instead of a golf club, give him a private lesson with a PGA pro.

"A lot of people have all the stuff they want to have," said Landy. "Experience has proven to be more memorable than tangible gifts."

Excitations seeks out and vets providers of experiences from a variety of categories, from wilderness adventures to ceramic lessons, and turns their offerings into gift packages ranging in price from $50 to thousands of dollars.

While most of the gifts are not of the specific Valentines Day theme, said AuBuchon, "what makes our gifts special for Valentines Day is that a lot of them are for two." Gifts that have proven popular for the holiday, she said, include couples massages, Segway tours, cocktail master classes, wolf watching and glass art classes.

"There seems to be a trend this year of people wanting to propose in helicopters," said Landy.

Gifts for one can also be handy, said AuBuchon, noting that, while it can be difficult to find Valentines Day gifts for men, many would be happy with a biplane adventure or a NASCAR ride-along.

The company launched in the D.C. area, she said, because its founders live here and because the region provided a convenient environment and customer base. "This is a fantastic market, in terms of people willing to adventure and explore," she said, adding that many residents in the area can afford the gifts, while nearby water and mountains provide accessible adventure destinations.

"The concept of packaging experiences and offering them as gifts is common in Europe," said Landy, who moved to the country from England in his 20s. "It struck me as off that it’s not offered here in the U.S.," he said, noting that the weather here is nicer, and both the mountains and market are considerably larger.

Initially, the company only offered experiences in the D.C. area, prioritizing the variety of gifts over the spread of its reach. Now, customers can purchase experiences in 25 states across the country. "If you give a gift to someone, you want them to be able to get to it, and not have to jump on a plane," said AuBuchon.

"We have a strength, because a lot of families are spread across the U.S.," said Landy. Therefore, he said, a grandmother living on the East Coast could look up experiences close to her grandson who lives in California.

In terms of geography and variety, the company grew by 250 to 300 percent in its first year, and again in its second year, said Landy, adding that January indicated similar growth for the coming year. This is in part the work of employees that Excitations has working on the ground, seeking out new possibilities, such as a court tennis facility in McLean the company recently learned of. It is one of 10 courts in the country where the 17th century version of tennis can be played.

Because experiences are offered in a variety of locations, prices do not include transportation or hotel stay, except in cases when those are part of the experience, such as the weekend tour of Dutch country in Lancaster County, Pa. that Landy recently went on with his wife or the train tour that the company currently has in the works.

In January, the company announced a partnership with Discovery Commerce, whereby experiences related to Discovery Channel shows can be purchased from Excitations through the channel’s Web site. Now, about 150 of the company’s current packages can be purchased through the Discovery site, but Landy said the partnership would evolve, with exclusive packages being offered through Discovery. "We’ll develop things that are unique to them," he said.

One of the packages that can be found on the Discovery Web site is the $330 dog musher experience for two that Deborah Horst, Excitations’ head of customer service, bought for herself and her 13-year-old son last Christmas. The two just went on the trip less than two weeks ago.

Having seen many Excitations boxes around the house, her son was not especially excited by the gift until he opened it, said Horst. "He opened it up and his jaw just dropped," she said, noting that her son is an animal lover. "It was all he talked about for the next month."

Though there was snow on the ground in Accident, Md., near the Deep Creek Lake area, the Horsts rode a sled on wheels, because it is easier to steer than a sled with runners and because it allows more dogs — up to 14 — to pull the ride. Horst said meeting the dogs was a treat. "You have no idea how much these dogs love what they do," she said, noting that the dogs could hardly wait to get started.

After a ride of almost two hours, said Host, "my son summed it up best by saying, ‘Mom, that was absolutely the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’"

"It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever done, too," she said.