Paul Mermelstein, president of Island Hideaways, a $1-million vacation rental agency in Ellicott City, Md., was desperate for a way to grab consumers and travel agents by the throat. The company's colorful catalogs and brochures were getting lost in a sea of travel literature advertising hundreds of "paradise-spun" properties on dozens of "sun-kissed" islands. And even when his catalogs surfaced, potential customers had little patience for the pages of photos and type, no matter how sophisticated the design.

Mermelstein realized that if he wanted his company to keep growing, he'd need to make a game of selecting the perfect vacation spot. He wanted an interactive tool that, after getting customers to specify preferences like location, budget, and room size, would automatically sift through reams of information to make the perfect match.

He found his answer in CD-ROM technology. On a single disk, "Villas of the Caribbean," Mermelstein crammed nearly 2,500 photographs, half an hour of music, 21 maps, enough text to fill a 200-page guidebook, and mini-spreadsheets with seasonal details on 390 villas, 23 resorts, 15 boats, and assorted cottages and condos. The disk cost next to nothing to produce, and until he started giving it away, Mermelstein granted a share of every CD sale to its developer.