One-of-a-kind experiences, starting at $15

@CNNMoneyTech January 25, 2012: 5:15 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- On a quiet afternoon in Manhattan's East Village, I'm having lunch inside a monastery while Rasanath Dasa, a banker-turned-monk, tells us about the moment he decided to leave Wall Street.

"My desire to work in Wall Street arose back in 1992, when foreign TV first came to India and I watched Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street," he tells the group of five who have traveled to his monastery. "For some reason, the images stuck in my head of 'man, that's what I really want to do -- that fast-paced life.'"

But the religious life also appealed to Dasa. He joined a monastery while he was still hustling deals on Wall Street for his employer, Bank of America. When he started work on a project for Playboy, the stark contrast between his inner life and his day job became too much.

"At the time that the economy was tanking, I was actually making money selling sex," he says.

He's a slight man who speaks slowly and carefully, pausing to gather his thoughts as he narrates. He's sharing his story with us thanks to a startup called SideTour. Almost every week, Dasa hosts a lunch for those who want to chat with him about his journey from Wall Street to the monastery.

Forget daily deals on restaurants and spas, or flash sales on designer clothes. The hot e-commerce trend at the moment is selling one-of-a-kind experiences.

Lunch with Dasa -- priced at $20 -- is just one offering from SideTour's lineup. Its roster also includes a race down an ice luge with an Olympic medallist (that's $150) or a cooking session with the host of NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant at his West Village townhouse ($35), among dozens of other options. The company takes a 20% cut when customers pay for an event.

SideTour is far from alone in the market. In the U.S., a key competitor is Zozi, which has raised $11 million from investors and currently operates in more than 60 cities. Germany has a whole pack of startups in the field, including Regiondo, Yasuu and Gidsy, which recently expanded into the San Francisco market.

One notable rival, Vayable, offers up experiences around the globe. Launched in April, the service's tours range from an exploration of an abandoned Soviet hospital in Berlin to an expert-led wine tasting in Paris.

Vayable founder Jamie Wong attributes the interest in selling experiences in part to the rough job market. More people are finding themselves out of work or in need of a second job.

"I think we're in an era where both the economy and cultural shifts are really dictating this kind of change, where people are moving more towards a freelance type of lifestyle," Wong says.

SideTour founder Vipin Goyal backs that view. He says his startup gives people the opportunity to make money doing what they love.

"It's a platform for people to share their expertise and monetize that," he says. "It's a huge opportunity for folks to supplement their income or to create new sources of income for themselves."

Goyal got the idea for SideTour after he and his spouse left their jobs and bought around-the-world plane tickets for a six-month trip.

"In places that we had local folks to share experiences with, it made all the difference," he says. "In places we didn't, our own experiences were highly dependent on serendipity."

He came home with the desire to build a platform that would help others connect with those kinds of experiences. Investors flocked to the idea: SideTour landed a spot in incubator TechStars' second New York cohort this summer, and it recently raised $1.5 million in seed funding. Since launching five months ago, SideTour has hosted 70 experiences, with a 90% sell out rate.

So is this a lasting market or a flashy trend?

Both Wong and Goyal cite studies concluding that experiences, not things, are what make people truly happy.

"People are starting to reevaluate -- especially in this economic environment -- how they're spending their money," Goyal says. "I think that's where you see a lot of this focus on experiences." To top of page

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