Marriott International (NASDAQ:MAR) is one of the best-known hotel companies in the world. Its decision to acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts has grown its footprint considerably, and efforts to integrate the two massive businesses into a single cohesive unit have taken time to bring to fruition. In the meantime, economic cycles have risen and fallen, and growing concerns about a global economic slowdown have weighed on the travel industry more broadly.

Coming into Thursday's fourth-quarter financial report, Marriott investors had wanted to see healthy levels of revenue and earnings growth. Top-line gains at Marriott fell short of those wishes, and despite a solid foundation of profit, an outlook for slower growth left many shareholders dissatisfied with the results.

Click here for the latest earnings call transcript for Marriott.

Marriott hotel overseeing a tropical garden with swimming pool.

Image source: Marriott.

Marriott puts 2018 in the books

Fourth-quarter results were mixed. Gross fee revenue of $910 million was up almost 6% from year-ago levels, while total revenue including cost reimbursements picked up less than 1% to $5.29 billion. Those figures weren't quite as good as many had hoped to see. Adjusted net income, however, was up 23% to $497 million, and that produced adjusted earnings of $1.44 per share, topping the consensus forecast for $1.39 per share among those following the stock.

Fundamentally, Marriott's numbers showed the crosscurrents in the global economy and the travel industry. Across its global network, comparable revenue per available room, or RevPAR, was higher by just 1.3%, slowing further from levels earlier in the year. The North American market was the biggest source of sluggishness for Marriott, as RevPAR gains were limited to just 0.2% on a comparable basis in the hotel company's home territory. Internationally, comparable RevPAR rose 4%, but even that healthier number was still weaker compared with past periods.

Marriott's fee income also showed disparate performance. Base management and franchise fees were higher by 8% for the quarter, with strong credit-card branding fees helping to assist overall unit growth in boosting the figure. Yet incentive management fees were down 4% from year-ago levels, and Marriott cited labor strikes and poor foreign exchange comparisons for the shortfall.

Expansion plans at Marriott continued apace. New property counts amounted to 146, adding almost 24,000 rooms to the hotel network. That brought the size of the system to more than 6,900 properties with almost 1.32 million rooms. Moreover, Marriott's pipeline remains healthy, with almost 2,900 properties in development that will add more than 478,000 rooms when complete.

Can Marriott make 2019 special?

CEO Arne Sorenson put the full year in perspective. "We are pleased that, just over two years since the acquisition," Sorenson said, "the integration of Starwood is nearly complete." He pointed to the new Marriott Bonvoy loyalty brand as a sign of the success of the merger and the benefits it will bring to the combined company.

Looking ahead, though, Marriott will have to deal with continued headwinds. In the first quarter of 2019, the hotelier sees comparable RevPAR rising about 1% to 3% worldwide, with just 1% to 2% growth in North America offsetting 2% to 4% gains elsewhere. Gross fee revenue of $885 million to $905 million should be 5% to 7% higher from year-earlier levels, but incentive management fees are likely to decline. Earnings of $1.30 to $1.35 per share would be at the low end of what most investors had forecast for the company.

Full-year 2019 projections show similar slow-growth trends. Growth worldwide and in North America for RevPAR will remain limited to 1% to 3%, and Marriott expects the same 5% to 7% growth in gross fee revenue to a range of $3.83 billion to $3.91 billion. Earnings of $5.87 to $6.10 per share for the full year would actually be down from 2018's final adjusted levels of $6.21 per share, further emphasizing the stagnant state of affairs for the industry.

Marriott investors struggled to put all those pieces together into a single story, and the stock was down just 1% Friday morning following the late-Thursday announcement. The hotelier has made a lot of progress in its longer-term strategic vision, but now Marriott needs economic conditions to cooperate in order to make the most of its opportunities to retain and grow market share.

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