Orbitz Founder's Next Act? Virtual Cash for the Jet Set

Casual Game Allows Players to Earn Cash for Travel

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Jeff Katz, the founding CEO of Orbitz, is obsessed with travel. He taught flying lessons while in graduate school, worked at American Airlines and Sabre, and was the head of Swissair -- all before running Orbitz and selling it for $1.25 billion in 2004.

Jeff Katz

So after all that what does Mr. Katz do to satisfy his travel urge? Create a social travel game, where instead of racking up virtual goods players win real-world travel. Mr. Katz is the CEO of NexTag, a consumer price-comparison search engine. But in his spare time, he figured out a way to use the massive data he saw available on Google Earth to help people with their travel needs.

The result is Travel Game, launched in public beta at last month's Google I/O developer conference after he'd been working on it for about a year. The game was built by some of the same people who created Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield 3. Players see Google ads -- of course -- and marketers appear eager to sign on. United Airlines, Hyatt and Royal Caribbean are on board with the beta.

Ad Age : How did you come up with this idea?
Jeff Katz: Running big brands like Swissair and being involved in travel, I thought for a long time what would be the next innovation. Maybe the next innovation isn't really about travel itself, but something that helps people solve the big problem -- that people don't have enough time or money to travel. So you play and you win "moola" -- or points -- and you redeem them for travel. And what if the game took place on a game board called Google Earth.

Ad Age : How much support are you getting from Google?
Mr. Katz: We're getting a lot more than we thought we would. We've had great support from the Google engineering team -- they've been very engaged and they really like the project. They asked us to launch it at Google I/O.

In 'Travel Game' a player skydiving can be offered actual skydiving travel packages.
In 'Travel Game' a player skydiving can be offered actual skydiving travel packages.

Ad Age : Why should marketers and advertisers care about this game?
Mr. Katz: Travel is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. So if casual games like "Angry Birds" and Zynga are billion-dollar businesses -- travel is bigger. It's bigger because everybody is interested in travel -- every demographic, every gender and it's constant and it's global. "FarmVille" may not translate in Sweden, but "Travel Game" does.

Ad Age : How do you see marketing working in the game?
Mr. Katz: There are lots of marketing hooks from performance-based ads to social marketing to traditional display marketing -- an infinite number of ways to communicate with this global audience. You know a lot about the player's interest from the game, so if a player is skydiving in Las Vegas, then you can offer that player a travel package for skydiving in Las Vegas. That offer can be served into the game as a pop-up, or we can even re-target the player on the web.

Ad Age : You mentioned "Angry Birds" -- they are working out a franchise. Are you thinking of going that way?

Mr. Katz: Not only can you play this game anywhere on Google Earth, but you can build games for every kind of creative idea. We can build a game to emulate the TV show "Amazing Race," a game based on "The Da Vinci Code," or a game about a historical tour of London. You can do anything with Google Earth as your game board and travel as your theme.

Ad Age : It's only been out for a few weeks, but how's it going so far?
Mr. Katz: We're seeing tremendous engagement -- people are playing 20 to 30 minutes of game play and a typical social game is a few minutes. We're getting a lot feedback from gamers like "Add more destinations" and "Make it even simpler and faster." We're hardly marketing the game and there's a lot of interest from e-commerce companies, airlines and hotels.

Ad Age : So what kinds of rewards to gamers get?
Mr. Katz: Right now prizes are a round trip ticket or a $50 United voucher or a night at a hotel. If you spend some of the "moola" that you win in the game, you can get a cruise, or a round trip ticket to Mexico. As we get more players, we get more rewards. As we get more advertisers, we get more rewards.

Ad Age : How do you make money?
Mr. Katz: The game revenue is from from players spending money in the game and advertising revenue.

Ad Age : How do you see this fitting into the social gaming world?
Mr. Katz: Everyone is doing social gaming and giving away virtual goods. We're saying virtual is good, and travel is better.

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