What Travelers Want Expedia spends a fortune to get inside the heads of its users
Expedia has bet everything on understanding the psyche of the modern traveler
n a Monday morning in mid-october, in a suburb of Seattle, a young woman nam named Megan went online to make some trave travel plans. She and her parents, along with herh siblings and their spouses, wanted to go s somewhere tropical in January, and in a flurry of texts and Facebook messages, Belize ha had emerged as the leading candidate. It had fallen to Megan, as it often did, to execute. So, a little after 9 a.m., she typed the name of the online travel agency ExpediaExp into her browser bar and began to explore flights.
Her preference was for Alaska Airlines—she’d had good luck with the carrier—but when she couldn’t find anything, she started looking at American. She noticed there was only one ticket left for the least expensive flight, which caused her some concern. She grew more apprehensive as she noticed that the cheaper available flights had long layovers. Then she saw that some of the layovers were in Los Angeles, and she briefly considered a visit to Disneyland.
After eight minutes, without settling on a flight, Megan began to explore hotels. The photos from a “jungle spa” resort caught her eye—it looked adventurous but also pampering— so she was crestfallen when she noticed that it was booked up for the dates she wanted. “Oh, so sad,” she said softly. She looked through the reviews of another promising hotel and found it had no Wi-fi, which wouldn’t be a problem, but also ants, which would. She stumbled onto a review someone had written about going to a resort to recover after “a surprising end to a marriage engagement.” That bummed Megan out a bit.
Then she found what looked like the one. This hotel wasn’t on the beach, but the reviews mentioned a spiral staircase, which sounded neat, and an on-site bakery. Megan loved bakeries. And it wasn’t too expensive. She’d have to confirm with her family, she reminded herself, but it was pretty close to ideal.
At that moment, a disembodied woman’s voice came over a speaker and told Megan she was finished. The voice belonged to an Expedia user-experience researcher named Susan Motte, who, with a team of programmers and designers from the company’s hotel-shopping and activities-booking teams, had been sitting in the next room watching Megan through a two-way mirror. Megan, who actually was planning a family trip to Belize (and whose full name Expedia asked not to be used, for privacy reasons), had been invited to the Usability Lab at Expedia headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., compensated with a gift card, and asked to use the site as she would at home. An eye tracker mounted on the bottom of the computer monitor logged where Megan was looking on the screen at any given moment. Sensors on one side of her face measured the electrical impulses in two muscles—the zygomaticus major, which tugs the corner of the mouth into a smile, and the corrugator supercilii, which furrows the brow. Megan’s emotions, manifested in infinitesimal changes in muscle fiber tone, had been playing out on a screen mounted on the wall in the adjoining room. A red waveform on a scrolling graph tracked her tension during the session, a green waveform below it, her delight.
All of her reactions, and her answers to the questions Motte asked as Megan used the site, went into a growing database. Expedia, the parent company of more than a dozen travel-oriented brands in addition to Expedia.com, is obsessed with figuring out how to make booking travel online more intuitive, more efficient, and more enjoyable. That means, among other things, understanding the psychodrama of trip planning: the shifting desires and paralyzing wealth of choices, the unsettling gyrations in room rates and ticket prices, the competing demands of family members and budgets and schedules, the need to balance the thirst for adventure against the fear of Zika virus in Latin America or Islamic State in Europe.
There’s a modest body of literature on the psychology of vacations, and one of its findings is that much of the pleasure comes from anticipation—a 1997 study found that people are happier thinking about a trip beforehand than when they’re actually taking it. The goal of Expedia’s usability researchers is not only to make Expedia’s various sites and mobile apps more efficient but also to make them an extension of the vacation fantasies that are always running in the back of our heads.
The basic act Megan performed under such close scrutiny plays out tens of millions of times a day—in homes, in offices, in line at the coffee shop on smartphones. In 2015 people performed 7.5 billion airfare searches and booked 203 million hotel room nights through Expedia and the other sites owned by the company—hotels.com, the “meta-search” site Trivago, the business travel site Egencia, the discount site Hotwire, Australia’s Wotif, and others. Over the past decade revenue has more than tripled, from $2.1 billion in 2005 to $6.7 billion last year, and the stock price has risen fivefold. Along with Priceline, whose sites include Priceline.com, Kayak, and Opentable, Expedia dominates the online travel business.
Like Priceline, Expedia is a survivor from an earlier tech era—both date from the mid-1990s—but unlike contemporaries such as Netscape and Yahoo!, they continue to thrive. Both were fortunate enough to get big quickly in a business that benefits greatly from scale and brand recognition, and their growth over the past several years has correlated with a long, gradual economic expansion during which both vacation and business travel have steadily grown. Both have made big acquisitions— most of Priceline’s growth has come from Booking.com, the dominant European hotel website, which it purchased a decade ago. Expedia, for its part, last year acquired the original online travel company, Travelocity, for $280 million, the upstart Orbitz for $1.3 billion, and the vacation rental site Homeaway for $3.9 billion.
What distinguishes Expedia is its dedication to understanding the psyche of the modern travel planner. That may be
most apparent in the Usability Lab, but much of it happens on the sites themselves, as the company relentlessly tests new ideas about look and feel and function. Expedia’s leadership believes the resulting base of knowledge is what has allowed it to recover from earlier stumbles. It’s also what they’re banking on to keep the company growing in a more hostile climate, as investors worry about the threat of Airbnb, consolidation in the hotel industry, and the ever-present specter of Google moving into the travel business. Then there’s the question of whether people are going to feel like traveling at all in what looks like a very tumultuous world.
Rich Barton, a young Microsoft engineer, was put in charge of a project to create an encyclopedic travel guide on the then state-of-the-art technology of CD-ROM. “I pretty quickly decided that was a dumb idea,” he says. Barton persuaded Bill Gates to instead let him create a website where people could book trips rather than just research them. The travel technology company Sabre, which was owned at the time by American Airlines and handled reservations for many of its competitors, was working on Travelocity, and got to market first. But Travelocity, hamstrung by its airline ownership, was slow to move from flights into the higher-margin business of hotel rooms. In 1999, 9, at the height of the tech bubble, Expedia was spun off, with Barton as CEO. Microsoft retained a majority ownership stake. e.
“It was really one of the first businesses ses to use e the Internet as a service for consumers,” recalls alls Barry Diller, now Expedia’s chairman and seniorr executive. “I couldn’t wait to buy it.”
Diller had already run Paramount Picturess and Fox in his previous career as an entertainmentment mogul. In 1999 he was in the process, through gh a series of sales and acquisitions, of turning a collection of TV stations into an Internet company. USA Interactive Interactive, as it was called at the time, purchased Microsoft’s stake ke in Expedia in 2002 for around $1.3 billion, then bought t the rest of the company the next year. In 2005, Diller’s ller’s company, now called Iac/interactivecorp, spun off its profitable travel brands—expedia, Hotels. com, Tripadvisor, and Hotwire—under the umbrella la of Expedia Inc., with Diller retaining control of a majority of the shareholder votes.
The new Expedia struggled. Hotel and airline partners resented the company y for the rates it demanded and started to take steps to circumvent it. Angered that consumers could often find lower prices es on Expedia than on their own sites, some hotels otels ended their relationship with it. The major U. U.S.S. airlines started up a rival, Orbitz.
Most damaging, though, was the rapid rise of Booking.com and its competing business model. On Expedia, customers had ad to pay for hotel rooms when they booked. Thiss socalled merchant model relied on buyingying large blocks ks of roomsroo at wholesale ratesates and marking them u up. The margins were large; for the p privilege of getting their ware wares into the giant global obal shop window that was ExpeE Expedia, hotels often had to p pay 2 25 percent or morere of the roomr rate. Booking.com,com, on theth other hand, used what was c called the agency model: odel: It allowed users to pay when they checked out (and i it took a smaller cut inn the form of a commiss commission). When customers got a taste of that flexibility, they tended
The goal is to make Expedia’s sites and apps an extension on of the vacation fantasies that are always running in the back of our heads
to prefer it. With customers leaving, revenue stagnant, and commiss commissions squeezed, Expedia in 2005 faced obsolescence.
The company’sc CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, 34 at the time, was pain painfully aware that he didn’t know exactly how the company should respond to its new troubles. The Iranian-born former i investment banker, who’d been IAC’S chief financial officer, decidedd he didn’t have to. If Expedia could be remade as a differentdiffe sort of company, its customers would provide the answersansw themselves. At the time, Expedia was centrally organize organized, in terms of both people and software. Technology decisions for all sites ran through one chief technology officer; marketin marketing questions ran through one chief marketing officer. Each site was an interconnected tangle of code. If programmers wantedwa to add the ability to handle credit card billing in Germany,Germ for example, that might end up causing errors in the flig flight- search feature. As a result, changes were rare: :A site would be updated only a couple times a year. Each change "would break the system only a couple times a year. Each change knows what,” Diller says in an interview at IAC’S Manhattan headquarters. “We couldn’t change a Tuesday to a Thursday without thousands of hours of work.” Khosrowshahi made the case to Diller that the company needed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars hiring and equipping coders to do work that would be largely invisible to co consumers. “We just had to go in and invest very aggressively without having a clear return on investment,” Khosrowshahi recalls. Diller bought it, and he persuaded the board to buy it, too. The
company’s tech spending increased from $130 million in 2005 to $362 million in 2010—in 2015 it was $750 million. Brand Expedia alone has increased its coding workforce since 2010 from 200 software engineers to 2,000. Today each of Expedia’s brands has its own technology and marketing teams, and they’re encouraged to set their own course. They all benefit from the massive inventory of hotel rooms and plane tickets and the financial resources and technological firepower of the parent company. How they use all that is up to them. “They are competing against each other, they steal from each other,” sayss Khosrowshahi. We’re sitting in a meeting room near his desk at Expedia headquartersh room nearin Bellevue,his desk at next Expediato a whiteboard that he gradually fills with drawings and charts. “Sometimes they do the same thing as each other, which is kind of a waste,” the CEO concedes. “You know, they’ll build the same exact feature twice. But the trade- off is speed.” The pace at which the sites evolve is paramount to him, and the most important
The problemis, purchasing the tickets and reserving the room
measure of it at Expedia is how many tests the software engineers run. The company’s gospel is “test-andl learn,” pronounced as a single three-syllable word. Also called A/B testing, it borrows the logic of pharmaceutical research: Test an innovation against the status quo and see if there’s any difference. It’s common practice at Google and Facebook, but it was relatively unknown in the online travel industry until Booking.com started using it. Expedia’s commitment to the practice is quasi-cultish. In 2011, when the company’s chief product officer, John Kim, started there, Expedia was running 50 to 100 tests a year. Last year it ran 1,750.
Today Expedians, as they call themselves, don’t debate questions, they test them: How big should a button on the website be? Should hotel availability be presented in list form or calendar form? How likely is it that someone typing a particular travelrelated search query into Google is booking a trip right then, and how much should Expedia therefore pay for an ad that will run in the search results page? What should the Expedia brand’s loyalty program look like, and should Hotwire have one at all? Are people more likely to reserve a hotel room if they’re shown how few are available at a particular price? (As it turns out, yes, even though they say they hate it.)
Expedia’s decision, for example, to preserve the distinct brands it purchases rather than subsume them into the Expedia.com site was driven by research showing that even in the world of online comparison shopping, people retain stubborn brand loyalty. According to Aman Bhutani, president of the Expedia brand, the same person might shop for a cheap business hotel on Travelocity, a nicer hotel for a family vacation on Expedia.com, and a car rental on Hotwire, even though all three are Expedia sites offering identical inventory. In keeping with the radical agnosticism of the company, Bhutani isn’t particularly interested in why that is. “I just want to know what you like and how many other people are like you so that I can provide those services,” he says.
Two-thirds of the A/B tests Expedia runs show no effect or a negative effect, and most of the successful ones are only marginally so. “It’s a game of inches,” Khosrowshahi says. “What you have now is lots and lots of inches, and it adds up to very big numbers.” This stockpile of technological and behavioral information allows the company to give its brands a far more nuanced understanding of what customers want and how to get them from window-shopping to booking. “The entire online travel market has improved its conversion rates,” says Ryan Williams, an analyst at Millward Brown Digital, a consulting firm that tracks Internet use. “But Expedia’s conversion improvement is outpacing the market.”
Expedia sees its traveler-behavior data as a defense against superfluity. Despite its size and name recognition, Expedia doesn’t have its own hotel rooms or its own airplanes. It’s a middleman among other middlemen. Booking.com still has the bigger inventory of hotel listings; Google shows flight and hotel results right in the search page. Even Tripadvisor, spun out of Expedia in 2011, has become a major competitor by allowing visitors to book directly on its site. For Expedia to continue to justify its commissions and its existence, it has to be better than everyone else at divining vacationers’ desires. That draws on both the steady churn of testing and learning and the more open-ended qualitative work in the Usability Lab, where researchers use terms like “delight” and “fantasy” in a clinical manner.
“We’re doing more work to understand the dream state, the plan state,” says Scott Jones, who runs Expedia’s design and user- experience department. “People are always planning a trip. They may not be actively shopping for a trip, but they’ve always got this idea in mind.” The problem, as he sees it, is that purchasing the tickets and reserving the room breaks the spell. “Booking travel online has become so full of decisions and answering questions,” Jones says. “People are always daydreaming about trips, but as soon as they come to our site, it becomes more of a work thing.”
Every December the annual Expedia Partner Conference
takes place in Las Vegas, the same weekend as the National Finals Rodeo. Cruise-line execs and car rental company reps mix along the Strip with honest-to- God cowboys and cowgirls. The conference is a chance for people who do business with Expedia to meet with one another and with the company’s leadership. It’s also a time for Expedia to convince all of those partners that the company’s no longer the bully of a decade ago. Many of the new features Expedia is rolling out are for its suppliers, allowing them, for example, to monitor what sort of photos or descriptive language attracts the most Expedia users. For the past few years, Expedia has reduced commissions, sacrificing profits to increase its inventory by luring more hotels to work with it.
One of the conference’s main events was a conversation between Khosrowshahi and Diller. At the front of a cavernous ballroom at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, the two sat onstage in leather club chairs. Khosrowshahi wore tight jeans and a slim, short suit jacket; Diller wore a pinstriped suit, driving shoes, and no socks.
The talk ranged from the future of cable television to the health effects of Coca-cola to Donald Trump—“an evil man,” Diller called him. “I’m very proud that for 30 years I haven’t spoken to him, because I’ve always disliked him.” Midway through they turned to the question of whether people were too scared to travel. The preceding weeks had seen both the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks. Islamic State was promising more. Trump was telling sellout crowds he wanted to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. In Europe, citizens were revolting against the idea of welcoming waves of Syrian refugees into their countries, and in the U. S., politicians and presidential candidates were rejecting the idea of letting in any at all. The world was feeling hunkered-down.
Khosrowshahi asked Diller what it meant for the travel industry, and the two started talking about Sept. 11. The attacks, along with everything else they wrought, caused people to stop traveling almost entirely for months. Diller was closing the purchase of Expedia at the time, and he and Khosrowshahi had debated whether to back out.
“We sat around and talked,” Diller said into his microphone, “and I don’t remember, you may remember who it was who said, ‘If there’s life, there’s travel.’ ” “I think that was you,” Khosrowshahi interrupted. “Oh,” Diller said. “So nice to hear. I’ve always given credit to someone else.”
It’s a resonant line, and over the day and a half that remained of the conference, various Expedia executives worked it into their presentations. It’s comforting to the company to think that the current trepidation about the world beyond one’s borders will pass. It’s comforting, too, to think of travel as a fundamental human activity, no matter what happens. Even among civilization’s radioactive remains, Mad Max will need to get from one place to another. He might need to find somewhere to stay when he arrives. And if there’s an on-site bakery, who’s to say he won’t want to know about it? <BW>
On the highway south of Bloemfontein, South Africa, Stuart Bray sits in the back seat of a safari truck, sweating in jeans and boots in the 100-degree heat of a December afternoon. Bray and his driver have just picked up two Chinese government officials from the airport, and now they’re wedged in next to him, their expressions hidden by sunglasses. As they drive, the only landmarks are dusty sheep farms and the occasional ostrich.
Bray rides cheerfully until, an hour into the drive, his cell phone buzzes. A tabloid reporter is calling from London, the city where Bray lives most of the year and where he’s getting a high-profile divorce. His wife has made another set of accusations in the multimillion-pound case. “No, it’s not true that I don’t like animals,” Bray tells the reporter, irritated. “No, it’s not true that I hate my wife’s cats.” It’s impossible to tell if the Chinese are listening.
The phone signal dies as the truck enters a wind-blasted, rocky expanse of scrubland called the Karoo. After an awkward silence, Bray turns his companions’ attention to the creatures they’ve come to see. “They could kill you just playing,” he says. “If one wanted to hurt you, you would really be in trouble.”
The truck approaches a 10-foot-high electric fence that stretches for miles into the distance, like something out of Jurassic Park. A sign on a gate, marked Laohu Valley Reserve, warns in Afrikaans that trespassers will be prosecuted. After stopping at a lodge, the vehicle continues down a dirt track that leads to more electrified fences. These divide slopes of dried grass into an uneven grid, each roughly the size of a football field. After a few more minutes, the truck stops next to the only building in sight, a hut with cage doors, and Bray and the Chinese get out.
Bray takes a breath. Even though he’s been to this spot on dozens of occasions, he feels the same pricks of excitement every time he sees the figure in the grass: a 7-foot South China tiger, crisp black brush strokes on a coat of deep rust fringed with white, head held low, yellow eyes tracking the men through the fence. Her name is Madonna. She yawns, baring canines the size of small railroad spikes, and rolls onto her back with her paws in the air.
One of the Chinese officials, Lu Jun, squats down to take photos. The other, Zhang Dehui, points at Madonna’s face. “Three stripes and one vertical,” he says. “This is a Chinese character. Pronounced ‘wong.’ It means king.” He sketches the symbol on a piece of paper.
Bray, 54, who is short and trim with neat, graying hair, looks skeptical. “Sometimes you can kinda see it,” he says. Bray is eager to keep the Chinese happy. He runs the organization that owns the Laohu reserve, and Madonna belongs to one of the most critically endangered species on earth, one that the World Wildlife Fund considers “functionally extinct.” None are believed to remain in the wild; perhaps 100 exist in captivity. Bray has 19 of them on his 74,000 acres. A 20th died the night before, after an encounter with a blesbok. He wants to re-wild the tigers, help them learn how to hunt and breed, and return them to the forests of southeastern China. Lu and Zhang have flown in from the State Forestry Administration in Beijing to talk about bringing Bray’s tigers home.
Madonna watches the group with mild curiosity. Determining that no one is going to give her any food, she turns her head regally to watch the sun sink over the rocky cliffs and driedup riverbeds of Laohu Valley.
Bray takes Lu and Zhang to the camp’s main lodge, where rangers set out a simple dinner after nightfall. It’s too hot to close the doors, so insects fly in from the darkness and swarm the lights as the men discuss the tigers’ fate. Probably more than any other person on the planet, Bray is responsible for whether the South China tiger survives or becomes extinct, a notion he finds as surprising as anyone else. Born and raised in America, he lives in London and maintains Belgian citizenship. A former executive at Deutsche Bank, his natural habitat is Wall Street or the Square Mile of London, where he spent a career in structured finance. Bray is happier talking about BlackScholes options pricing than he is trekking through the bush, where flying bugs make him jump.
A hot wind rattles the windows of the lodge as Zhang, the director of his agency’s wildlife conservation division, begins a series of toasts, as is Chinese custom, marked with shots of local liquor. In halting but clear English, he thanks Bray for his efforts at restoring a species on the brink. The next step, Zhang says, will be the hardest. Bray’s charity has spent 10 years teaching zoo tigers how to hunt. If these potential man-eaters are to be sent to China, the government will need to relocate some of its citizens. In a nation of 1.4 billion, even the most remote nature preserves have some human settlements.
Bray says he wants 300 wild tigers in a sprawling habitat.
“We have to move the people,” Zhang tells him. “China is not like South Africa. You are very ambitious.”
Bray stares at him. “I have bet my whole life on this,” he says.
In 1998, Bray was on vacation in Zambia with his girlfriend, Li Quan, when their guides on a walking safari led them straight into a pack of lions. Terrified and worried that Li might bolt, Bray grabbed her by the shirt collar. They backed out. Afterward, he couldn’t stop laughing because of the adrenaline.
Li, a slender woman with expressive eyes, hadn’t been scared. She’d always been fascinated by big cats and filmed the whole scene on her video camera. Born in China, she’s one year younger than Bray. They met as graduate students at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s. Li later gave up a licensing job at Gucci to move to London and be with Bray, then a partner at Bankers Trust. She needed something to occupy her while he was out creating tax-focused securitization deals, and the safari episode, she’d later say, gave her an idea. What if she could bring African-style ecotourism to China, creating a habitat for endangered tigers and a source of revenue to help them thrive?
Bray was skeptical but vaguely supportive of conservation, and gave Li $150,000 to start a charity, Save China’s Tigers. Wary of being asked to write more checks, he told her, “This is a black hole that will consume infinite money and is doomed to fail.”
Li spoke to someone she knew in the State Forestry Administration and found him surprisingly receptive to the idea of reintroducing the big cats to the country. The earliest known tigers lived in China more than 2 million years ago, and Neolithic people there carved figures of them into rocks to ward off ghosts, disasters, and disease. While the South China tiger once roamed a territory 1,200 miles wide, the species was all but eradicated by hunters during the “anti-pest” campaigns of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and its forest habitat was largely destroyed. There is a conservation movement in modern China, albeit a nascent one.
Bray planned to raise as much as $2 billion in this way: He’d create and then sell asset-backed securities, use the money to buy forestry assets in China, and then, with income from selling wood, repay investors in the original securities. Anything left over would go to the tigers, and a finance firm—which Bray set up—would get fees for arranging the deal.
“My friends thought I was crazy,” Bray says. “In particular, some of the people I was trying to persuade to work with me thought it was crazy.” Bray imagined something like a philanthropic hedge fund. If successful, it would make enough profit to pay for a tiger habitat in China and also give Bray and his staff the kind of compensation City of London financiers were accustomed to—as much as £10 million ($14.5 million) a year for Bray personally. That would make him one of the best- paid conservationists in history. Bray pitched Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and ABN Amro, but none would agree to back the scheme.
In September 2003 handlers at the Shanghai Zoo put a pair of South China tiger cubs named Cathay and Hope into cages and flew them to Hong Kong. There, Li held a news conference with former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, whom she’d enlisted as a charity patron through a fashion-industry friend. After another plane ride, the tigers arrived in South Africa, where Li introduced the cubs to more journalists at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. “We have to take this drastic measure to save them from likely extinction,” she told reporters and photographers. Cathay and Hope spent several weeks in quarantine at the facility, got treated for ringworm, and received a dental checkup before being delivered to Laohu.
A book released by Li years later describes the moment the cubs first set foot on semiwild African soil. “Li’s heartbeat quickened. Yes! It could work, it was already working,” reads the introduction. “Her delicate Chinese fists clenched with joy. Her critics were wrong. They were dull, unimaginative people who dared not dream.” The reality was less inspiring. When Cathay and Hope arrived, they refused to get off the concrete foundation at the gate. They’d never walked on grass before. Laohu staff had to use a ball the cubs played with to coax them into their enclosure.
When it came to feeding, there was no guidebook for re-wilding a tiger. Hardly anyone had attempted it before. “This was all speculation until you actually try it,” Bray says. The first time they put a live chicken in the enclosure, the cubs chased it around for a while until the bird got tired. “Once the chicken turned around and stared at them, they just stopped.” Being faced down by poultry was a humiliating start to life in the wild for two young tigers. The team mixed chicken meat into zoo food to get the cats used to the taste, then introduced plucked carcasses, then dead birds with feathers on. Eventually, Cathay and Hope overcame their first live chicken.
Two more cubs arrived from China in late 2004. Madonna, who came then, got dehydrated after spending all day in the African sun. “There was shade available, but she was too naive to know how to use it,” Bray says. Li stayed up all night offering water to the shaking, vomiting tiger.
A 4-year-old male called 327 arrived in 2007. He was used to life in zoos and never got comfortable outside. “You could see by the way he walked,” Bray says. Finally, 327 found his mojo by mating with one of the females; then, pumped up with macho pride, he picked a fight with another male and lost. His skeleton is mounted in a glass case in the reserve lodge.
Bray’s legal problems got worse. The Varty litigation was costing $1 million a year in lawyers’ fees. A South African animal protection group sued one of Laohu Valley’s managers, saying it was cruel to put living creatures in an enclosure for tigers to hunt. South African judges rejected the lawsuit in 2008, but by then Bray and Li were almost out of money. The tigers were breeding, and the project needed more fences for new enclosures to separate them, as well as more antelope for hunting practice. The worldwide financial crisis that year officially ended any interest from banks in Bray’s forestry-finance idea.
Just when the project needed it most, there was an unexpected windfall. While Bray was fighting with Deutsche Bank over his options, the bank put out a news release. Bray claimed that it implied his old division was caught up in a U.S. tax probe, which wasn’t the case, and he sued for libel. The suit, along with the stock dispute, was settled out of court. In 2009 he arranged for Deutsche Bank to pay £20 million to a Save China’s Tigers charitable trust as a tax-free donation. The same year, Bray gave up his American citizenship and became a Belgian national, saying he didn’t want the organization to face onerous U.S. taxes.
Amid the lawsuits, the money troubles, and the difficulty of what they were attempting, Li and Bray’s relationship began to rupture. Li saw herself as the charity’s figurehead, but her style irritated Bray. She created Twitter and Facebook accounts for the tigers. The book she released in 2010, based on her diaries, described tigers with smiles on their faces, and love triangles, jealousies, and heartbreaks when they mated. Bray thought all this undermined the project’s credibility.
They went to counseling, but the arguments got worse. Li said Bray became emotionally abusive; Bray said Li
threatened to tell the Chinese government there was something shady about the Deutsche Bank settlement.
Bray removed Li from the charity in 2012. She filed for divorce in London 10 days later. They’ve barely spoken since. Li signs off e-mails to Bray with “wrath of the tigress whose baby has been taken away.”
Li climbed into the witness box of a wood-paneled London courtroom on Dec. 17, 2013, to testify in the divorce. She was surrounded by at least a dozen red folders full of evidence, and behind her the court walls were lined with law books, some more than a century old. Her husband sat a few feet away in the front row. Wearing a silver tiger belt buckle, Li sobbed as she spoke. When they founded the charity in 2000, Bray thought of the tigers as her “little hobby,” she said. She’d been forced out after devoting 13 years of her life to an animal she loved. “I intensely hope I can continue my work.”
The court had to resolve an important financial issue before it could grant a divorce. Li argued that a trust holding the Deutsche Bank money was for the couple’s benefit, as well as for the tigers— a so-called marital asset to which she was entitled. Bray argued that the funds were exclusively for the charity.
It quickly became clear how far Li was willing to go to win her case. She described living well on the charity’s funds. “I bought furniture, we had expensive dinners, we had expensive wines,” Li said. There were rented sports cars and a wall mural. The couple’s operating expenses, which would have seemed modest at Deutsche Bank or Gucci, looked shocking when charged to a registered charity. The veteran judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, was incredulous. “This is a charity with people being asked to contribute money to it,” he said. “It was incredibly dishonest.”
“I was careful to ensure that outside money went to the tiger project,” Li replied.
Li also alleged that Bray used the charity to shield his wealth from taxes. “What lies behind all this is Mr. Bray and Mr. Bray’s control,” Li’s lawyer, Richard Todd, told the judge. The tiger project, he said, was going nowhere.
British newspapers found the story of the millionaire banker, his glamorous wife, and their endangered predators irresistible. “CLAWS OUT IN £50M SPLIT OF TIGER COUPLE,” read one headline in the Daily Mail. “Tremendous damage has been done to the charity by the reporting of the hearings here,” Bray complained to the judge.
He paced outside the courtroom during breaks. Asked by reporters for a way to contact him, he said he’d have to take legal advice before giving out his e-mail address.
Bray’s day in court came in June 2014. He struggled to keep his cool during hours of cross-examination. “You are reading far too much into it,” he shouted during one exchange, his blackrimmed glasses pushed up onto his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Let me take a moment.”
“These are perfectly legitimate questions,” Coleridge said, looking down at Bray from the judge’s bench. “We have to explore these things.”
Bray agreed his use of overseas trusts and advisory firms was confusing. There are reasonable explanations for the complexity, he argued, describing how he’d tried to use his finance skills to achieve the charity’s goals. When an animal is “facing imminent extinction, then you swing for the fences,” he said. “You make big bets, because if the bets pay off, you have the money to save them.”
Judge Coleridge took until October 2014 to deliver a verdict. He ruled in Bray’s favor, saying he’d seen nothing improper about the charity or the couple’s actions, even those he’d initially seen as dishonest. The trust holding the Deutsche Bank money “was always, and is, only for the Chinese tigers.” Whereas Bray’s testimony was clear and consistent, Li “has become blinded by her desire for revenge,” Coleridge said.
Li has since started her own charity, China Tiger Revival. In November 2015 she got permission from a panel of judges to appeal Coleridge’s ruling. If she doesn’t win the case, she says, she’ll be left with nothing. Even the East London home she still shares with Bray is owned by Save China’s Tigers. Li, her lawyers said in a statement, “wants the courts to understand what is really going on in the financial superstructure built up around these tigers by her husband.”
On the second day of the SFA’S visit to the reserve, Zhang and Lu rise early to watch the tigers being fed. Although they mostly subsist on freshly shot game, they’re learning to hunt. One of the males once killed an 1,800-pound eland and spent a week chewing on it. The tigers have also eaten aardvarks, baboons, and porcupines, and the mothers are passing these skills on to their cubs.
In Madonna’s area, one of the rangers tosses a dead antelope over the fence. The tiger bounds up, snatches the animal by the neck, and carries it a few yards. She licks the fur off with her abrasive tongue, then bites into the rump. Within a few minutes, the bottom half of the antelope is a bloody mess. There’s a crackling noise like burning twigs as Madonna bites through a leg bone. “That sound still gives me the shivers,” says one of Bray’s employees, Brad Nilson.
Bray poses for photos next to the feeding tiger. “I should make that my Tinder profile picture,” he says later, back at the lodge.
His staff sets up a projector screen in the lounge so he can give a presentation to his Chinese guests, surrounded by tiger photos and big-cat-themed ornaments. Loss of biodiversity is a threat to all life on earth, Bray begins, and it’s happening
faster than at any point in human history. “We have to reverse this problem,” he says, “not for me because I love tigers, but because I want the planet to remain habitable.”
Bray describes a site in southwest China, the Qichong National Nature Reserve, as an ideal home for the tigers. It’s primal forest, surrounded on three sides by mountains and a river, remote and sparsely populated, but with good enough transport links to support ecotourism, he says. He’s signed a provisional agreement with local officials and is negotiating with the provincial government.
Zhang listens carefully before responding. More than a decade has passed since Chinese zoos first loaned Bray and Li their tiger cubs, Zhang says, and there’s pressure to bring them home. The question is how. One option is to re-create Laohu in China so the animals can acclimate to a forested environment and then be released later—an interim location, in other words, at a modest size.
Bray frowns and cracks his knuckles. The suggestion is far short of his vision of tigers returning to a pristine wilderness. “At great personal cost, I’ve lived up to my commitments,” he says. “I expect China to do the same. Whether this was a silly folly or a successful project depends on what we end up with in China.” His voice is getting louder. “I have to have a good ending for this.”
Zhang replies calmly, “The Western way—frankly speaking, we don’t think it will work in China.”
Even if Bray could delay the tigers’ return indefinitely, he’s facing a bigger problem: At some point, the charity will run out of money. Bray says it has cash of about £5 million, and the revenue possibilities at Laohu are limited. One is game ranching— raising animals such as springbok and eland and selling them on South Africa’s live game markets. A second is charging hunters to shoot such animals at Laohu. That might be controversial, given that hunting is what got the South China tiger into trouble in the first place, but Bray can live with it. “I wouldn’t consider it unjust for me to make some money,” he says. “I think the likelihood of me making the money back I put in is close to zero.”
If the Chinese government won’t pay for a reserve, the best remaining outcome might be to find a billionaire patron. Zhang and Lu keep talking about a potential backer named Su Zhigang, the chairman of Guangdong Chimelong Group, who’s built a theme park empire in China. His company’s attractions, including a circus, a drive-through safari, and the country’s largest theme park, Chimelong Paradise, get millions of visitors every year. Recently he opened a $5 billion island water park near Macau, a kind of Asian Seaworld. Su is apparently interested in taking Bray’s tigers.
Bray appears intrigued but says he needs to be convinced that Su would be a suitable partner. He’s heard the name before but hasn’t been able to contact the entrepreneur, and Zhang and Lu seem unwilling to arrange a meeting. But Bray understands that Su has two things he lacks: access to vast resources and clout in China. (Su didn’t respond to several requests for comment.)
The argument over the tigers’ fate, and who will pay for it, continues into the evening, as Bray and Zhang walk off to sit in near-darkness at an outdoor table. Above the sound of crickets and springbok steak sizzling on the barbecue, Bray can be heard shouting, “This is my legacy.”
Bray’s problems seem a long way off during a game-spotting drive on the final day of the officials’ visit. The tigers are what conservationists call an umbrella species: The care lavished on them also benefits other creatures in the ecosystem. Raising exotic Asian tigers in Africa has turned a cluster of former sheep farms into a stunning habitat, albeit one surrounded by fences and managed by people. There are two wild cheetahs on the reserve, and a grassy plain is strewed with bleached bones from their kills. Springbok bounce alongside the truck, flouting gravity.
Bray bounces in his seat as one of the reserve managers, Heinrich Funck, steers along a rocky track. “I got involved gradually,” Bray says, reflecting. “Suddenly I had 30,000 hectares.”
Funck slows so his passengers can observe a lone oryx standing under the shade of a tree. “I would say it took over your life,” he says.
Bray is silent for a moment. “Yes,” he says. “It has.” <BW> �With Feifei Shen
▼ In the Usability Lab, an eye tracker traces what draws a subject’s attention. ▶ The observation room
◀ A test subject t is wired with sensors that will recordd impulses in her facial muscles uscles as she navigates the site.e. She’ll be mic’d’d up and observedved through a two--way mirror
TIGER 327 ( ABOVE) DIED FIGHTING A RIVAL MALE IN 2011; DELTA ( BELOW) DIED AFTER SUSTAINING AN INJURYHUNTING A BLESBOK IN DECEMBER