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Priceline Keeps Seeing Growth Accelerate

By Dan Caplinger – Feb 27, 2017 at 5:46PM

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The travel giant has high hopes for 2017 after an extremely strong year.

Online travel giant Priceline Group (BKNG -0.04%) has been able to deliver reliable growth to investors for years. Even in situations during which the prospects for the travel industry as a whole seemed in doubt, Priceline has found ways to outpace its competitors and keep moving forward aggressively. Coming into Monday's fourth-quarter financial report, Priceline investors wanted to see the company continue to deliver the strong results it has produced for a long time, and the hotel, car, and air travel provider didn't disappoint as it sees a strong 2017 as well.

Let's take a closer look at Priceline Group to see how it did and what's ahead for the company going forward.

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Priceline picks up momentum to end 2016

Priceline's fourth-quarter results looked reminiscent of the online travel company's past achievements. Total revenue was up more than 17% to $2.35 billion, which was slightly better than what most investors had expected to see. Adjusted net income climbed more than 30% to $711 million, and that worked out to $14.21 per share in adjusted earnings. That figure was up by almost a third from the year-ago period, and it topped the consensus forecast among those following the stock by more than $1 per share.

Looking more closely at the report, Priceline once again showed strong fundamental performance. Gross travel bookings came in at $15.1 billion, up by more than a quarter from the year-ago period. The U.S. dollar reared its ugly head once again, producing roughly two to three percentage-point headwinds in terms of bookings and gross profit. Growth in international segment gross profit outpaced the full company's results.

The hotel business remained the fastest-growing part of Priceline's offerings, continuing a streak that stretches back far into the past. Room-nights booked jumped 31% from year-ago levels to 129.7 million, which was its best growth rate in more than two years. The rental car business also picked up for Priceline, posting 14.4% growth to 14 million rental-car days and seeing its fastest increase since early 2015. However, airline tickets continued to elude Priceline, falling another 4.3% to finish at 1.6 million.

Once again, agency revenues remained the commanding factor in Priceline's growth, as the segment's top line climbed by nearly a quarter. By contrast, merchant revenues fell about 1%, and advertising and other revenue split the difference with gains of about an eighth.

New CEO Glenn Fogel was happy about the results in his first report as chief executive. "The Priceline Group finished 2016 with a strong fourth quarter," Fogel said, "reporting accelerating growth in hotel room nights booked, with solid organic growth and attractive profit margins." The CEO also noted how strong full-year performance was compared to 2015."

What's ahead for Priceline?

Priceline was also optimistic about 2017's prospects. In Fogel's words, "We will continue to focus on growing our supply base to drive customer choice, innovating around the customer experience and investing efficiently in marketing to deliver profitable top-line growth."

Yet the company continued its habit of giving downbeat expectations for future quarterly guidance, despite investors' knowledge that it's unlikely to perform so poorly. Priceline said that it expects gross travel bookings to rise 17% to 22% in dollar terms, with a two percentage point hit coming from adverse currency movements. Room-nights booked should rise 20% to 25%, but adjusted earnings of $8.25 to $8.65 per share would be far below the current consensus forecast for roughly $10.55 per share on the bottom line.

Priceline investors looked past the guidance and celebrated the strong finish to 2016, and the stock climbed about 1.5% in after-hours trading following the announcement. With so much potential for better results ahead, Priceline has its shareholders salivating at the health of the company's fundamental business model looking forward.

Dan Caplinger owns shares of Priceline Group. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Priceline Group. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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