UPDATE 3-Slow Asia economy weighs on Starwood Hotels forecast

Fri Feb 14, 2014 2:08am EST

* Fourth-quarter revenue $1.51 bln vs est. $1.53 bln

* Adjusted earnings $0.73/shr vs est. $0.70

* RevPAR from Asia, excluding China, falls 3 pct

* Expects first-quarter earnings $0.53-$0.56/share

* Shares fall as much as 5 pct

By Sagarika Jaisinghani

Feb 13 (Reuters) - Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc forecast first-quarter revenue below analysts' estimates, mainly due to a slow Asian economy and a strong U.S. dollar.

Starwood's shares fell as much as 5 percent after the owner of the Sheraton and Westin hotel chains also reported a drop in fourth-quarter revenue and did not say if it had bought back shares in January.

An austerity drive by China's government and slow economic activity in the rest of Asia are weighing on U.S. hoteliers' results. Chief Financial Officer Vasant Prabhu said on a conference call That anti-government protests in Thailand "significantly" hurt Starwood's business in January, while the company's performance in India was weak and will likely stay that way until after the general elections later this year.

A severe winter in the United States that delayed travel and a slight dip in consumer sentiment in January are also expected to hit hotel operators in the current quarter.

THAI IMPACT

Hotel occupancy rates have dropped sharply in central Bangkok, where street protests began in November aimed at removing the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Starwood runs a Westin hotel and a Sheraton hotel close to one of the main protest sites at Asoke, making access for cars and tourist buses difficult.

Starwood ranks fourth among leading hotel brands in Thailand - behind Accor SA, Centara and Marriott International Inc - with just over 2 percent market share in 2012, according to Euromonitor.

The Thai Hotel Association said earlier this month that occupancy rates in the capital were hovering at around 50 percent, well below the usual 80 percent at this time of year - particularly as 2013 was a record year for tourists with more than 26 million visitors. Tourist arrivals last month were about 1 million, half the number in December.

Growth in tourism, which accounts for about a tenth of Thailand's GDP, more than halved to 10.7 percent in the fourth quarter year-on-year from a 26.1 percent jump in July-September.

Online travel agency Orbitz Worldwide Inc forecast current-quarter revenue below analysts' estimates on Thursday.

Starwood said its revenue per available room (RevPAR) - a metric of hotel health, calculated by multiplying a hotel's average daily room rate by its occupancy rate - rose almost 8 percent at company-operated hotels in North America in January.

Hyatt Hotels Corp is scheduled to report results on Friday, while Marriott and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc are expected to report over the next few weeks.

SLOWER BUYBACKS

JP Morgan analyst Joseph Greff said Starwood was slowing the pace of its share buybacks. The company bought back $78.6 million in shares in the fourth quarter, and Greff estimated that $2.7 million of that was repurchased between Oct. 24 and end-December.

"The real disappointment is in the lack of buybacks in the (fourth quarter)," he said.

Starwood returned more than $500 million to shareholders in 2013 through stock buybacks and dividends, roughly similar to 2012. In contrast, Marriott returned over $1.3 billion to shareholders in 2012.

Starwood forecast first-quarter profit of 53-56 cents per share, well below the average analyst estimate of 63 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"There's limited visibility across the lodging business and as such, we believe conservative guidance at this point is prudent," MLV & Co analyst Ryan Meliker wrote in a note.

Starwood's RevPAR from hotels open at least one year in Asia, excluding China, dipped 3 percent in the fourth quarter. Excluding currency changes, RevPAR rose 8 percent in Asia, excluding China, CEO Frits van Paasschen said.

Total revenue fell 1.8 percent to $1.51 billion in the quarter, just shy of the average analyst estimate of $1.53 billion. Net income fell to $128 million, or 67 cents per share, from $142 million, or 72 cents per share, a year earlier.

Excluding items, Starwood earned 73 cents per share, above the 70 cents per share analysts had expected.

Starwood shares last traded down 2.24 percent at $75.36 on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock has gained more than a fifth in the past 12 months, in line with the Dow Jones U.S. Hotels index.