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

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Drake Ben­nett Pho­to­graph by Tina Schula

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


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