Excitations reinvents gift-giving norms

This year for your birthday, how about you and a guest learn how to mix the perfect martini?

This year for your birthday, how about you and a guest learn how to mix the perfect martini?

Excitations, founded in 2004, specializes in experiential gift-giving. If becoming a master mixologist isn't your thing, you can spend a couple of hours on the New Hampshire International Speedway living out your Mario Andretti fantasy, or take your chances with a Great White Shark off the coast of California. With more than 1,000 packages across the country, whatever "that thing" is that you've always wanted to do, it's likely Excitations can set it up.

"We all tried to plan crazy birthday gifts for each other and our families ... a wine-tasting tour rather than a sweater in a box," says Kim AuBouchon, co-founder and COO of Excitations, referring to her gift-giving practices and those of the company's two other founders, Nancy Lamberton and Ian Landy, (Lamberton also serves as VP of communications and corporate sales; Landy as CEO.)

At first, an Excitation experience was intended for the holiday gift giver. However, it is now an option for birthdays, weddings, even wedding proposals, where people are increasingly looking for unusual scenarios to pop the question.

Not only are the gifts distinctive, but Excitations as a company is unique. Research conducted before the launch of the business showed that the company would be one-of-a-kind in the US. As such, communications for the company is not just a matter of building the brand, but also creating the language with which to discuss it.

"The biggest challenge that we've had is: What do you call experience gifts?" AuBuchon says. "None of those buzzword combinations really work. You have to build the nomenclature behind the segment."

Furthermore, Excitations considers itself as part of the service industry, and has to position itself as such.

"We're pulling together this great portfolio [of experiences] and then we're actually doing the scheduling," Lamberton says. "You can [change] a gift if you get cold feet, for instance. That's something really valuable for the customer and recipient."

The company's message is clear when you look at some of the snapshots collected from the experiences: A smiling woman paddling her kayak on white water; another woman reaching for her partner, who waits, dangling from a trapeze; or two people soaring through the clear blue sky on a hang glide.

"When we're out there creating our communications marketing plan, it's really neat because a lot of the media are looking for things that are visual that you can tell a story around," Lamberton says.

"Broadcast has been a phenomenal success story, but the images in print have also been [great] because of editorial to go along with it about this new market," AuBuchon adds.

Excitations has been featured on the Today show, The Early Show, and in publications like USA Today, the LA Times, and The Washington Post. Trade publications, such as those for the human resource population, are also a target because companies are always looking for new ways to reward clients and employees.

"Interesting enough, we get a lot of crossover," Lamberton says. "We'll have someone receive an experience from a spouse and think it's neat and [suggest it] to the HR person or marketing VP."

Intentionally and unintentionally, a viral marketing element is built into their PR strategy, which Lustig Communications and Westin Rinehart have helped execute both online and through traditional media.

The gift-giving process is inherently viral because people will tell others about what they received, and the Web simply magnifies the viral effects. Details about gift experiences are also easily understood from the company Web site, as opposed to visits to some sort of brick-and-mortar store, Lamberton adds, plus the company has been targeting blogs, like Weddingbee and the shopping-centric Daily Candy.

Excitations is also the exclusive provider of Discovery Channel Experiences, which are available through the Discovery Channel Store Web site, opening up some fantastic cross-marketing opportunities. Viewers can watch the action on TV, and then go to the Excitations site to become part of the action.

Despite the broad appeal of Excitation's offerings, a major target is women, aged about 30 to 50, who make up a large portion of the gift-buying population. But the company has found that all clients make great spokespeople for its offerings.

"When we're positioning with the media, we promote the variety of experiences, as well as the customers," Lamberton explains. "What we're trying to do in our message to prospective customers is [say that] we've created this incredible portfolio for you to give as a gift."

At a glance:

Organization:
Excitations

President and CEO: Ian Landy

Headquarters: Sterling, VA

Annual operating budget: Undisclosed

PR/Marketing budget: Undisclosed

Key trade titles: Consumer and lifestyle titles, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and blogs

PR team:
Nancy Lamberton, VP of communications and corporate sales; Kim AuBuchon, COO. (Both are co-founders)

PR agencies:
Lustig Communications, Rockville, MD; Westin Rinehart, Washington

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