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Perfecting the art of gift-giving

A favorite gift transformed my life. My husband presented me with one week of sailing lessons through Sea Sense, a sailing and powerboating school for women. For seven days, I polished my skills of hoisting sails, tacking and jibing on a 42-foot sailboat in Washington state's San Juan Islands. Sure, I learned to sail. But it was also one heck of a floating party, too.

Rarely is gift giving performed with such perfection. There are Cuban cigars handed to people who don't smoke, DVDs sent to people who don't own DVD players, and basketfuls of luscious sweets presented to diabetics. And woe to the recipient of a fancy bottle of exotic perfume who in fact suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities.

From choosing the right gift to selecting the appropriate wrapper, there's an art to giving a gift. Hear from the pros on how to do it with flair.

Tailor your gift to the recipient. "Don't buy a gift that you like and think they'll like or a gift you think they need, but have never expressed a need for," says Alison Deyette, the style expert from Stylebakery.com and gift adviser to the Today show. Instead, match the person to the gift. This might take a bit of research.

"Pay attention to what the giftee does — do they play sports, enjoy games, like good food and wine, always wear fabulous shoes?" Deyette asks. Listen closely for hints. "These can lead to clues of what and where to buy them a gift this season, whether it be a beaded turquoise necklace, a pink cashmere hoodie, or anything to do with golf. If you're completely clueless, but can't show up at the party empty-handed, then consider a gift card."

Play sleuth and learn the recipient's likes and dislikes, says Robyn Spizman, author of The Giftionary and Make It Memorable. "What are they interested in? Their hobbies? Favorite colors? Brands? Do they value helping a good cause? Do they have a pet? Don't just ask them if they like chocolate; ask if they like milk, dark, bittersweet or white chocolate! Get the details."

What if you don't know the recipient? Shopping for acquaintances and co-workers can be challenging. "If you don't know someone very well, consider something that's practical," Spizman says. "Everyone will enjoy a gift they can really use, like tickets to a nearby movie theater or a gift card to a favorite coffeehouse like Starbucks, and tell them, 'Thanks a-latté!' Give a gas gift card and say, 'Have a gas this holiday!' Even if you just know they have kids, that means they'll love a family game, new video or something they can do together."

Consider an "experiential" present. Does your friend or family member already "have it all?" Janet Kraus, CEO of Boston-based Circles, a loyalty and experiential marketing company, predicts that some experiential gifts will be hot this holiday season. These include adrenaline-pumping adventure activities such as being a fighter pilot for a day or riding shotgun in a NASCAR-style stock car. Other gifts can include customized in-home entertainment, like a sommelier evening, a personal chef providing a week of customized meals, or even a customized cooking lesson with an acclaimed chef.

Wrap presents with flair. "For an outdoorsy look, wrap gifts in brown paper and tie with jute or raffia ribbon in green, then add colorful leaves and a pine cone as the center bow,'" Deyette says. "For sparkle and shine, choose metallic paper in gold or silver. Tie with a coordinating ribbon and then spray the paper with hairspray and sprinkle on little bits of colored confetti or glitter. For winter glitz, wrap the gift in blue paper, tie with white ribbon with a bow on top, and then add large paper cut-outs of snowflakes to the end of the ribbon and a few decorations lightly glued to the package. Add a card written in silver ink."

Wrappers can be unconventional, too. Spizman describes one of her most memorable gifts.

"My husband gave me a watch inside a stuffed bear. He had a seamstress put a little fake door in the back of the bear and remove some stuffing. When you opened up the flap, the watch was inside the bear. He added a note, 'I can't bear to be without you!' I adore the watch, but the presentation was memorable."

Remember a personal note. "The handwritten note adds a nice touch to any gift," says Jacqueline Whitmore, Office Depot's holiday-etiquette expert. "Those deserving a note of thanks include anyone who's given you advice, their time, or a helping hand this year."

 

Robin Dalmas is a freelance writer and former MSNBC.com travel editor and producer.

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