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On Location: Travel Tips

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The "Destination Orbitz" marionettes have been stored away and in their place, Young & Rubicam in Chicago has unpacked a few new ad stars: a Hawaiian dancer, a sea lion, some showgirls and a drag queen named Coco.

They're all metaphors for travel destinations: Hawaii, SeaWorld, Las Vegas. Coco touts Orbitz's gay micro-site. The four spots, shot by Noam Murro over two days in Los Angeles, are the centerpiece of the travel site's "Find It" campaign, which breaks Friday.

In the downtown L.A. highrise where the team is shooting two of the commercials, marketing chief Michael Sands says research showed Orbitz's niche is the relevance of its search results. "Everybody allows consumers to search for travel," he says. "It's not about the search, it's about finding the relevant option for that traveler."

The spots use a hide-and-seek theme, which the new "Orbitz and go" tag plays off. The client liked the line, says advertising director Jeff Marsh, because it "makes Orbitz almost like a verb—almost like Google."

A distinct smell of fish is in the air, coming from a conference room with a sign on the door that reads "Seal Holding Room." It's the temporary home of Schmoo and her handlers, four students and a professor from America's Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College.

Actor Kevin Fabian plays an office worker taking on the creature in a game of hide-and-seek, counting to 10 as Schmoo shuffles up a hallway to hide. Just as Orbitz provides search results quickly, Fabian soon finds the sea lion.

Drag queen Coco Peru is hiding in another cubicle with James Getzlaff from Bravo's Boy Meets Boy and Pam Woody of PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays). They represent faces one might see in a gay-pride parade. Marsh says tens of thousands of people travel near or far to such events. And, adds Sands, the gay and lesbian community is "a highly lucrative, highly active group of customers for us. It's a terrific target market that nobody else in the online travel-agency community was focusing on."

A gay-themed marionettes ad that ran on shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy helped increase traffic to the gay section of the site by 50 percent, says Marsh.

On day two, the production moves to a home in Northridge, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley. Moya Brady is playing a woman who finds Sid Liufau hiding in her kitchen, representing her dream Hawaiian vacation. Liufau was supposed to be a fire dancer, but insurance prohibited fire in the home, so he plays a ukelele instead. Technically, Liufau is of Samoan descent—he was born in Hawaii—but then, the "Seal" spot actually stars a sea lion.

Today, Murro isn't looking very Hollywood, dressed all in black on a hot, sunny day. "I think it's a fantastic concept," says Murro, asked why he signed on. "It's very funny, original, smart—that's good enough for me." He says he's not one for giving his actors deeper motivation for their actions. "The idea is to tell 'em where to go and what to do, and they'll do it," he says simply. When it's pointed out that he's been doing a bit more than that, he says with a smile, "I guess I'm slipping a little bit."

In the afternoon, Murro and his Biscuit Filmworks crew shoots J.J. Williams as the lucky man who finds a trio of Vegas showgirls in his backyard. One of them is a little too sexy, and some strategically placed feathers are used to adjust her décolletage. Director Paul Thomas Anderson drops by to visit D.P. Robert Elswit, the cinematographer on Anderson's four features (three of which are also set in the valley).

Asked whether he prefers humorous spots, Murro says he doesn't consider himself a comedy guy. But he adds, "I view life as a very dark thing, and I guess that makes it very funny."

The day before, sitting on the floor in an empty office before filming gets under way, cd and copywriter Ken Erke noted that the campaign will be "a little bit more original and unconventional" because "Orbitz is the challenger brand."

"They encourage you to push," adds senior art director Sonya Grewal. "I think it's going to be some different stuff on TV."