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Posted: December 24, 2004, By GAYLE MacDONALD, Globe and Mail

There is no other time of year that is so joyously jumbled.

Take Sunday. I wake at 6 -- ruing the wine and boisterous carol-singing of the night before -- to ferry three little boys to hockey practice. Back home for a quick shower and change into Sunday clothes. One of the hockey guys has to be on deck for the church pageant at 10 a.m. After watching him chortle his way through Away in a Manger along with Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men, it's back home for a quick lunch, then off to the dry cleaners, the drugstore and the local gift shop for a hostess gift for the friend who is throwing her annual holiday drop-in. I make it to the party by 5:30, visit for an hour, and then hit another arena. Son No. 2 has a game at 6:30.

What else? Oh yes, I have friends coming for dinner at 8.

Normally, I'd be in a cold sweat by now, screaming orders -- "Light the candles! Put Norah Jones on the stereo! Get the dog out of the cheese tray!" -- but not this time.

An angel named Sonia Thapar has appeared on my doorstep. And with her comes holiday salvation, namely a sumptuous, I-didn't-have-to-lift-a-bloody-finger meal.

Thapar's catering company, Sonia's Spicy Secrets (her specialty is Indian fusion cuisine), is one of several businesses in Toronto and Vancouver that have teamed up with Shoppers Drug Mart to offer harried consumers a rather existential gift: the gift of time. Called Life Experiences, they come in the form of buy-them-at-the-cash credit-card-sized certificates that are the ultimate in last-minute shopping.

"They're designed so you can catch your breath and enjoy a personal indulgence," says Murray Milthorpe, brand champion for Shoppers Life Experiences.

Milthorpe, who believes that the program is an ideal fit for the 150 million customers (the lion's share women) who go through Shoppers' doors annually, now offers 47 different "experiences" in Ontario and more than 20 in British Columbia, sold through 480 stores. Shoppers is planning to expand the program into Quebec early next year. There are four categories -- Romance, Pamper, Family Fun and Adventures.

They include a three-hour Merry Maid sweep of your house ($199), a trip to Algonquin's Eco-Lodge to howl with the wolves ($199), a home spa service ($129), a customized love song ($199), and dinner and a tour through a Niagara winery ($199).

"The most popular are the pampering and romance sections," Milthorpe says. "But these are gifts that keep on giving because you give them, but you also get to experience them. They are different and unique. And they say to the people you give them to, 'I cherish you, and the time I get to spend with you.' "

Milthorpe is on to something, according to Canadian style maven Lynda Reeves, publisher of Canadian House & Home and Gardening Life. 

"We simply don't have a lot of quality time any more to spend on ourselves, give to our friends or share with our husbands or kids," Reeves says. "A gift like this forces you to stop and unplug from the technologies that keep us running full-tilt."

Shoppers is not alone in offering ready-made escapism. A three-year-old Toronto company called Big Day Out also packages adventures or pampering excursions. Ranging in price from $99 (fly a Cessna) to $149 (behind the scenes at Stratford) to $499 (herd cattle and camp under the stars), Big Day Out also offers another quality prized among the target boomer audience: a sense of exclusivity.

How exclusive? Well, if you've got $15-million to spend, the company says it can send you into space with a Russian cosmonaut (no takers, so far).

Josh Dawson, director of Big Day Out, says his company offers 150 "unforgettable" experiences, designed for clients who are sick of "getting their wife or husband earrings or a watch. In this time-pressed age, it's better for the soul to give someone an experience that makes them feel invigorated or special."

Like Shoppers, Dawson declined to say how many packages he has sold, but said sales have doubled from last year.

Reeves believes that women in her age demographic, 45 and older, are the most powerful consumer group, with great spending power. These types of gifts, she adds, will have great appeal.

"When a woman reaches her middle years, she wants to be made to feel special," she says. "To feel like a VIP, that she's appreciated, still sexy, that she's relevant. There's room for men to treat women that age as if they're newly discovered. Nothing could be better than to take her on some sort of adventure, to try something unusual and wonderful."

Of course, for women of the hectic generation, the unusual and wonderful can be as seemingly simple as having someone cook dinner.

Thapar pulls up in front of our house in her van at 6:15, unloads three coolers, and gets to work. When I pull into the driveway at 7:45, the house smells sumptuous. Our friends knock 15 minutes later, and Thapar is ready with a tray of crab and brie phyllos and Indian fusion canapés. 

That's followed by a mixed green salad with fennel and nigella seed vinaigrette, a main course of filet mignon on a bed of cumin-scented basmati rice, and seasoned okra. Dessert includes Sonia's Secret Kisses (bite-sized ice creams coated with milk chocolate).

My school friend says she loves the food, but especially appreciates the fact that I get to sit and really visit with her the entire night, instead of jumping up every five minutes to grab something out of the oven, or whisk away dirty plates.

"It was a treat to be able to share an uninterrupted evening, where no one was rushed or stressed about the food prep and cleanup," she says later. That's right: no cleanup.

In terms of gifts most appreciated in my lifetime, this ranks right up there with my Easy Bake Oven (circa 1972) and last year's handmade Christmas card from my youngest son, who wrote, "I love you as much as I hate mashed potatoes."

It's a lovely ending to what had been an absurdly harried day.

"I find that most people are just so busy they don't have time to cook and enjoy meals any longer," Thapar says. "They're busy at work, their kids are in so many programs. This is an investment in a simple pleasure. And you're telling someone you love that they have your undivided attention."

It's also a more intimate setting than a restaurant.

"We give them a bit of extra time so they can actually sit down and eat together, talk. We give them that extra two or three hours of pure peace," says Thapar, a 32-year-old mother of two young kids.

Reeves says the "experiences" programs are about giving yourself permission to spoil yourself, and others. "Boomers -- as a collective demographic group -- are more affluent than any previous generation in history. So we're looking for meaning in other areas, not just by being consumers. The only way we're going to get it is if we connect to other people through experiences."

At the other end of the spectrum from the intimate dinner is what may be termed the adventure experience. One of Big Day Out's most popular attractions, for example, is the so-called Covert Operations, where big boys get to pretend they're James Bond. 

Big Day Out flies you to Tucson, Ariz., where you are selected by an ultra-secret paramilitary unit for a covert mission in hostile territory. "A secret agent picks you up and flies you to the middle of the desert, where a base of ex-Navy Seals and special forces people take you through training to rescue a hostage in a real life type of setting," the 29-year-old Dawson explains.

Shoppers also offers several "boys-and-toys" experiences, such as tandem skydiving ($269) and fly fishing ($189). But even the boys are time-crunched, as I discover when I sign up for a few personal training sessions ($299) with 1992 Olympic gold hurdler Mark McKoy.

"People's lifestyles have changed dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years," McKoy says. While many want personal training sessions like his (he works you out, and then shows you how to do a similar regime at home), they don't have the two hours to get to a gym.

"They want to be healthy, but they're often too busy to take care of themselves. They take care of the almighty dollar, but if you don't have your health when you retire, then what's the point?"

NOTE: The Chef Alliance no longer provides services such as Chef Experiences.

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