The celebrity experience is yours, for a (high) price

How about Bill Clinton, Pope Benedict, Justin Bieber, Kevin Spacey or Ina Garten for starters?

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Call it "Make-a-Wish" for grownups.

While Patricia K. Smith awaits sentencing after pleading guilty last week to wire fraud for embezzling $10.2 million from Baierl Acura of Pine, let us ponder how we, too, can have dinner with Kevin Spacey after his performance in "Richard III," a front-row seat at a papal audience and club-level tickets to the Super Bowl in Dallas.

Those were some of the lavish purchases the 57-year-old Cranberry woman made with money she siphoned from Baierl over six years while working as its controller. She also bought four houses, 10 cars and jewelry and paid for seven trips to Europe and four to the Caribbean islands.

But it was the online "experiences" that piqued our interest.

For the right price, it seems, just about anything is for sale these days: Justin Bieber's pet snake was recently auctioned off for upward of $6,000, and while Ms. Smith didn't buy that, she sure knew how to make Baierl's money work for her.

She purchased hotel stays at the George V in Paris; the aforementioned $5,000 Vatican trip, including VIP seating at a Mass with the pope; and a chance to be escorted on to the stage during a performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" (although it's not clear in what capacity). And don't forget the $32,000 luncheon with Food Network star Ina Garten at her barn in East Hampton, N.Y.

Actually, experience is one of the biggest trends in conspicuous consumption these days, whether it's a day with former President Bill Clinton or a meet-and-greet with the cast of CBS's "Hawaii Five-0."

Online, there are all kinds of sites that will help you burn through your stash of cash, from Groupon to Experience-A-Celebrity.com (Dine With a Diva/Lunch With a Legend) and CharityBuzz.com -- where Ms. Smith purchased some of her experiences.

At Experience-A-Celebrity, experiences begin at 250 pounds (nearly $390) and up. "Make your dreams come true with this ultimate mouth-watering dining experience," says the British site proffering mostly British celebrities but not always (Dine "at some of London's top icon restaurants" with legendary soccer manager Harry Redknapp; "road test a dinner plate" with aging "Dallas" star Patrick Duffy).

Actually, this site sounds less pricey than the $32,000 lunch catered by "Barefoot Contessa" cookbook queen Ina Garten purchased by Ms. Smith.

Multimillionaires have always found it easy to lasso a big name or two or three for a party, as 84 Lumber magnate Joe Hardy did for his 84th birthday in 2007 when he brought in singing superstar Christina Aguilera, Bette Midler, Robin Williams and the Broadway cast of "A Chorus Line."

But online sites such as New York-based Charity Buzz, a leader in the growing field of cause marketing, make it easier for average folks to score some great experiences while doing good.

On Tuesday, 11 people were bidding for the "Ultimate Hawaiian Vacation and Hawaii Five-0 Experience Including Round-Trip First Class Airfare from LA, Meet and Greet with the Cast and Lunch with Scott Caan." Estimated value: $20,000 (although at press time only $11,500 had been proffered).

That particular event benefits the Life Rolls On Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury.

With 60,000 registered bidders, Charity Buzz arranges for an "experience" to be auctioned online, and keeps 20 percent of the proceeds, which pay for marketing, solicitations, social media, shipping, design work and, most important, access.

Actually, a day with Mr. Clinton recently went for $255,000, and the former president "is one of the top sellers on our site," said Glenda Felden, director of communications for the company, which has raised $50 million for nonprofits around the globe since launching five years ago.

Be forewarned, though: not every experience is worth the money. On the discount site Groupon.com, someone recently purchased a $25,000 deal for cooking classes with celebrity chef Todd English, and Ryan Sutton, a food critic at Bloomberg.com, blasted it as a "bad deal" on his blog.

Some experiences, as they used to say in the old MasterCard advertising campaigns, are priceless, but this isn't one of them, Mr. Sutton noted.

"Most Todd English deals are axiomatically BAD DEALS because they involve having to eat at Todd English restaurants," said Mr. Sutton, noting that the food in Mr. English's establishments has been recently panned in the press.

This deal, he said, proves that "Grouponomics, the emerging science of making irrational decisions in an over-leveraged world of credit card debt and sovereign debt, is worthy of a Nobel Prize."

Still, research has shown that "experiences provide longer-term happiness and more lasting value than material possessions," said Ms. Felden of Charity Buzz.

Instead of a once-a-year fundraising dinner where all the money is raised at one time, "Charity Buzz can auction off access throughout the year," she said. "It's a true online community, where you can find all kinds of experience and exclusive access, whether it's a vacation, memorabilia or collectibles. There's really been a turn towards seeking incredible experiences rather than merchandise. People want to get the most out of the extra funds they have."

The question is, how did Ms. Smith make the most out of her extra funds with Charity Buzz?

Ms. Felden had no comment.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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