Expedia Takes Sick Children on Thrilling Real-Time Adventures -- Without Leaving the Hospital

Campaign From 180LA for St. Jude Is the Stuff of Dreams

By Published on .

Children with serious illnesses and confined to their hospital beds might think that swimming with tropical fish or running with wild horses is the stuff of dreams. But Expedia, along with its agency 180LA, has made such dreams come true for kids battling cancer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

The "St. Jude Dream Adventures" campaign consisted of a temporary 360-degree installation at the hospital that "transported" the children to Cordoba and Talampaya Park in Argentina, Monkey Jungle in Florida and the Great Maya Reef in Mexico. In it, they experienced the locations' natural wonders -- from fossils to colorful sea-life to wily monkeys -- in real time. Expedia employees whose own lives had been affected by serious illneses were on location as personal tour guides to show the kids the sites.

In one "adventure," a girl in love with horses watches them speed across Argentine plains with Expedia employee Sara L., a brain tumor survivor. Chera, whose family members have been diagnosed with cancer, leads a boy on a monkey adventure and Expedia employee Reenie, who also has family affected by cancer, goes scuba diving in Mexico to lead the underwater tour for Hannah, who has since passed away. Since it's all occurring in real-time, the patients were able to ask questions, "touch" and explore the locations with the help of their guides.

See all the films, including a making-of video on the campaign's YouTube channel.

The campaign was a "dream" idea of the agency and took more than a year to realize, according to 180LA's chief creative officer William Gelner. "We hit on this insight that travel actually does have healing power, and when we were talking to the kids at St. Jude, one of the things we found out was that a lot of them had dreams of places and adventures they wanted to go on," he said. "But sadly, they wouldn't be able to because of their illnesses."

Expedia and 180LA worked hand-in-hand with St. Jude to cast the children for the film. After presenting the idea to the hospital, the team then turned it over to St. Jude to find the patients who would be a good fit, said Expedia's senior brand marketing manager Jessica Eichner. "One of the great things about St. Jude is that they're very conscious of how they handle their patients. They're very protective in a good way and helped us to find who would enjoy it, who was feeling well enough and whose families would be on board."

The campaign team then asked each child about his or her "dream adventure," and made a customized trip for each one. The agency tapped All 360 Media for the surround video capture and then created the projection-mapped installation, a six-sided experiential space, with a company called Pixel Rain. The "real-time" aspect of the experience proved especially tricky, and the production team went through several tests and trials to ensure that there was no lag time and projections were as clear as possible, according to Mr. Gelner.

The idea seems to lend itself perfectly to favorite tech of the moment, VR, which the agency considered. "That was our first thought," said Mr. Gelner. "But these kids are really sick and VR can be pretty intrusive. We didn't want to make them more sick by sticking headsets on them. We opted for something that felt much more organic and more pleasurable."

"We believe in the power of travel, and we believe that if everyone had the ability and access to travel, the world would be a different place. There'd be less crime, less bigotry if more people saw the world beyond their own," said Vic Walia, Expedia senior director, brand marketing. "So our goal is to get more people traveling by building the tools and technology for it."

Expedia and 180LA have a history of running us through an emotional wringer. In 2012, they debuted the "Find Yours" campaign, which included the tear-inducing viral film illustrating a father's acceptance of his daughter's homosexuality as he makes his way to her wedding, as well as "Find Your Strength," another moving film about a cancer survivor and her young friend who ended up succumbing to the disease.

The latter, as well as the brand's holiday film -- showing Santa flying coach (so he could donate his points to the hospital) -- are part of the brand's long-time partnership with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

While the "Dream Adventures" installation brought joy to the kids in the film, the brand is committed to making it an experience for more children. "While it's a beautiful spot, it affects four kids," said Mr. Walia. "We are in active discussion with St. Jude about building a permanent installation so that more kids can experience adventures. St. Jude is very receptive to the idea, and while I don't have any details to share, we are in deep discussions. This is not just a passing fancy."

Embracing emotion has been empowering for Expedia as well, and Mr. Walia said that since the debut of "Find Yours," the approach has had meaningful impact for the brand. "We've found the way to differentiate ourselves is to build inspirational and impactful advertising, and it's helped us to break through as a leader in the category," he said.

According to ComScore, Expedia -- whose brands include other booking sites Travelocity, Orbitz and Hotels.com -- ranks number 1 in the online travel agent category by monthly unique visitors. There were 52,618,000 monthly unique visits in February, compared to second ranked company Priceline.com, which had 23,883,000. The Expedia.com brand itself has the most online visitors among all online travel agent brands, and on its own had 22,215,000 unique monthly visits last month.

Most Popular