digitalsouth magazine, covers Atlanta for LocalTechWire. His column appears every Monday. It appears to be about the worst investment possible just now — a consumer dot-com tied to the travel industry. But that’s exactly where a Russian tycoon-in-exile and a former Esquire magazine publisher from Atlanta are putting $4 million.

Internet companies, especially consumer sites, are about as popular as a certain energy trading concern. Meanwhile, the travel industry is reeling from the September terrorist attacks and recession. Priceline.com, the online travel booking service, was at one point worth more on the stock market than the entire U.S. airline industry. Its value now, $1 billion, wouldn’t buy more than two or three jumbo jets.

In an SEC filing, Priceline says it is living “in an uncertain competitive environment that makes near-term forecasting very challenging.”

Sound like fun?

It is into that environment that Alan N. Greenberg and Vladimir Gusinsky have leaped. They’ve thrown a $4 million lifeline to Atlanta-based LastMinuteTravel.com.

The company is a classic dot-com, a “B2C” no less, selling trips online to impulse leisure travelers. LastMinuteTravel’s torched some $40 million in venture funding. It rents high-class offices, and even bought a TV ad during the 2000 Super Bowl, when 30-second spots averaged an all-time high of $2 million.

Two years later, LastMinuteTravel had laid off most of its staff and was nearly under. Then it got a reprieve from Greenberg, a former Esquire publisher who got rich selling an online health information firm, and Gusinsky, owner of several Russian media properties who was run out of the country by Vladimir Putin’s government.

For Gusinsky, reviving a dot-com must seem trifling. Until the Russian government essentially wrested it from his control, Gusinsky ran what the British magazine The Economist described as “a highly politicized anti-Kremlin media outfit.” The newsweekly characterized Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, another exiled media baron, as “controversial figures who used their media empires ruthlessly to advance their political and business goals.”

Those goals often ran counter to the wishes of the Putin government, and thus both men reportedly face arrest on fraud charges if they return to Russia. Before Gusinsky and his NTV channel were slapped down, Ted Turner and George Soros in 1999 flirted with an investment in NTV.

All Greenberg has to worry about is saving LastMinuteTravel.com. He can do it first hand, as he’s taken over as CEO and chairman.

While it’s certainly not for everybody, his and Gusinsky’s investment might not be entirely misguided. For one, with LastMinuteTravel on its deathbed, Greenberg and Gusinsky almost surely got most if not all of the company’s stock. (Greenberg didn’t return calls.) So in a sense, the risk is minimal and the possible rewards would go mostly to them.

Second, Greenberg has bought and sold companies before. His Greenberg Medical News Network sold to WebMD for $215 million in 1999. While that resulted as much from fortunate timing as anything, according to people familiar with the deal, Greenberg nonetheless did it. If he can nurse LastMinuteTravel to some semblance of health, perhaps a Priceline or someone else will buy it for more than $4 million. Or, he might integrate with other travel-related companies in which he owns stakes. If the company ultimately fails, just blame it on the dismal marketplace.

Third, LastMinuteTravel has already spent heavily on promotion and, as it’s struggled, has cut costs dramatically. Much of the dirty work is already done. So Greenberg gets a reasonably well-known brand and what figures to be an economical operation.

Hopeful signs exist

Finally, while recession and fear of terrorism have battered the travel industry, online concerns such as LastMinuteTravel and Priceline have shown some hopeful signs.

LastMinuteTravel’s Web site reportedly draws more than 750,000 different people a month, mainly because of an exclusive five-year deal with AOL Time Warner that links AOL customers to LastMinuteTravel.com. But Greenberg said in published reports that not enough of those shoppers have actually bought tickets. He has not disclosed sales numbers.

Priceline, a useful proxy for the online travel business, reports that it secured more than 900,000 new customers a quarter during 2001. However, customer acquisition has slowed dramatically: the company added 36 percent fewer customers in the first nine months of 2001 than in the same stretch of 2000, according to SEC filings.

Trying to squeeze profits from this business will be no picnic. But for the strange couple of Greenberg and Gusinsky, neither of whom are noted for modesty, it looks like a deal with some upside and limited downside beyond losing a little of their wealth. Welcome to vulture capitalism.