The battle for supremacy among Chinese online travel agencies (OTAs) is over: (NASDAQ:TCOM) is the clear winner. After market consolidation helped the company gain an upper hand, we're now seeing the leverage that comes with being the top dog in this growing industry.

The company's earnings release was proof that the network effect has taken hold -- as more Chinese citizens flock to the site, more airlines, hotels, trains, and buses are incentivized to list. And it leaves Ctrip in the driver's seat, able to command incrementally better margins as time moves on.

A commuter train in Shanghai passing tall buildings

A train in Shanghai. Image source: Getty Images.

While these are all favorable dynamics, it doesn't mean Wall Street will always love the results. That's because high expectations have already been baked into the stock. Read below to see how the company's most recent quarter played out. earnings: The raw story

Before diving into the weeds, let's view the company's performance from 30,000 feet.


Q3 2017

Q3 2016



7.9B yuan (RMB)

5.7B yuan


Non-GAAP earnings per share

2.70 yuan

0.17 yuan


Data source: Percentages rounded to nearest whole numbers.

Looking at that in dollars, revenue for the quarter was $1.2 billion, with earnings coming in at $0.41 per share.

Given the outsized jump in earnings, it's surprising to note that -- even after backing out stock-based compensation -- operating expenses jumped 67% for the quarter. The company was helped by significant interest income, as well as some smaller one-time gains.

Shareholders should take heart, however, by the fact that gross margins expanded by a whopping 697 basis points, to 83.5%. In the most basic sense, this means that the company's moat truly is widening. Because of its dominant place in China's OTA supply chain, Ctrip can negotiate for more favorable terms from both travel providers and customers.

Digging deeper

As is standard for the company, it broke out all four of its major segments.


Q3 2017

Q3 2016



3.4 billion RMB

2.4 billion RMB



2.8 billion RMB

2.1 billion RMB


Packaged tours

1.0 billion RMB

0.8 billion RMB


Corporate travel

0.2 billion RMB

0.5 billion RMB


Data source:, all percentages rounded to nearest whole number, using figures carried out three decimal points.

Transportation growth was driven by the company's acquisition last year of SkyScanner. Management said that tickets sold on the website via SkyScanner increased 250% over the same time last year -- justifying management's expense on the purchase.

What else happened during the quarter?

There were a number of noteworthy developments during the quarter:

  • While details were scant, management said it was changing its booking process to make it "easy and straight-forward," which would provide a short-term headwind.
  • Management continued to tout the company's offline stores in low-tier cities throughout China, saying that, while their short-term contribution will be limited, the building of long-term brand awareness as these citizens come on line will be important.
  • The company invested in a private start-up similar to Airbnb, dubbed Tujia. The start-up has 650,000 listings in China and saw transactions grow 300%.

Looking ahead

As of this writing, shares of were down a modest 3%. In the face of positive results, the two big things to remember are the fact that air-ticketing revenue will be held back due to the aforementioned booking changes, and the company is devoting a lot of cash to expansion in lower-tier cities that may take a while to pay off.

For the current quarter, management is calling for revenue to grow 25% to 30%. That's an important slowdown from the current quarter, but one that management said is necessary to implement the booking changes.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.