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Choice Hotels International, Inc. (NYSE:CHH) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript

Choice Hotels International, Inc. (NYSE:CHH) Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript February 20, 2024

Choice Hotels International, Inc. beats earnings expectations. Reported EPS is $1.44, expectations were $1.35. Choice Hotels International, Inc. isn’t one of the 30 most popular stocks among hedge funds at the end of the third quarter (see the details here).

Allie Summers: [Abrupt Start] -- our remarks as part of our fourth quarter and full-year 2023 earnings press release, which is posted on our Web site at under the Investor Relations section. This morning, Pat Pacious, our President and Chief Executive Officer will speak to our fourth quarter operating results and full-year highlights; while Scott Oaksmith, Chief Financial Officer, will discuss our financial performance and 2024 outlook. Joining us also today for the Q&A portion of the call is Dom Dragisich, Executive Vice President, Operations and Chief Global Brand Officer. Following our prepared remarks, we'll be glad to answer your questions. And with that, I'll turn the call over to Pat.

Patrick Pacious: Thank you, Allie, and good morning, everyone. We appreciate you taking the time to join us. 2023 was a year of accelerating growth. We delivered record financial performance as we exceeded the top end of our guidance with a 13% year-over-year increase in adjusted EBITDA to $540.5 million, a 16% year-over-year increase in adjusted EPS to $6.11, and unit growth ahead of our expectations led by our successful strategy of adding hotels that generate higher royalties per unit. In 2023, we significantly expanded our rewards program, increased our geographic reach, unlocked new value to our platform capabilities, and created step function growth through the rapid completion of the Radisson Americas' integration. This positive momentum combined with projected unit growth acceleration and supported by our superior hotel conversion capability gives us confidence in achieving our expected adjusted EBITDA growth of 10% in 2024, which is captured in our current guidance range.

I will begin today by discussing what drove our impressive fourth quarter and full-year 2023 results, and then discuss our proposal to acquire Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, because it is the growth drivers of our current business that underpin the confidence we have in our ability to unlock the significant value for shareholders, franchisees, and guests that we see in the combination with Wyndham. Our distinct growth strategy, supported by our best-in-class franchising business engine drove adjusted full-year 2023 EBITDA 13% higher than the prior year, and 45% higher than in 2019. This continues our consistent track record of delivering double-digit profitability growth year after year. We have positioned the company to build on this performance in 2024, and beyond, as we continue to grow our franchise business with hotels that generate higher royalties per unit, while leveraging the investments we've made in our systems to further improve the franchisees' profitability.

In line with our previously communicated outlook, we expect to grow our full-year 2024 adjusted EBITDA to $590 million at the midpoint of the guidance range. Choice's strong growth is fueled by the successful execution of our key strategies, which demonstrate the versatility of our business model. We have multiple growth drivers, each uniquely contributing to our performance. These include the following. First, driving the growth of our brand portfolio with a focus on hotels that generate higher-than-brand-average royalties per unit. Second, increasing the velocity of hotel openings through our best-in-class hotel conversion capability, which is our distinct advantage in today's development environment. Third, expanding our geographic growth internationally, where we more than doubled our EBITDA contribution for the year.

Fourth, further bolstering our platform capabilities through strategic partnerships and other ancillary revenue opportunities. And finally, creating outsized value through the successful integration of new businesses, most recently Radisson Americas. Our distinct unit growth strategy continues to deliver results and enhances the attractiveness of our brands. Since we embarked on our strategy of focusing our franchise business on more revenue-intense units six years ago, we have increased our hotel mix of higher revenue generating hotels by eight percentage points, and they now comprise 82% of our total domestic portfolio. Importantly, we expect this mix shift to continue to grow in the coming years. These new revenue-intense franchises are more accretive to our earnings and are a key driver of our future growth.

This positive trend was evident in 2023 as we exceeded our unit growth guidance. In particular, we grew the number of Choice legacy domestic rooms across these more revenue-intense brands by 2.4% year-over-year. Importantly, the new hotels we added within a brand, on average, generated royalty revenue nearly 20% higher than hotels exiting the brand. At the same time, we executed new hotel openings at an impressive pace. In the fourth quarter, we averaged eight openings per week, and this contributed to a 13% increase in openings in 2023 year-over-year, with 263 domestic hotel openings. In the current hotel development environment, our core competency of a best-in-class hotel conversion capability has an even greater impact. Through our superior speed-to-market conversion process and best-in-class franchisee support, we are able to move projects quickly through the pipeline.

Of all the domestic franchise agreements we executed for conversion hotels in 2023, we opened 135 in the same year. We also expect this core competency to be a key growth driver in 2024 as developers continue to choose our brands. Specifically, as of the end of the fourth quarter, we grew our global rooms pipeline for conversion hotels by 34% year-over-year, and 16% quarter-over-quarter. In addition, 72% of the domestic agreements awarded in 2023 were for conversion hotels. We are especially pleased with the prospects for our Radisson upscale conversion brand given that each hotel generates, on average, six times more royalty revenue than our economy portfolio. Fueling our success is our ongoing commitment to strengthening the value proposition, we provide to our franchise owners supported by significant investments in creating a best-in-class franchise success system.

In fact over the past decade, we have more than tripled the number of rewards program members and grew the direct online contribution to our franchises by nearly 50%. Thanks to our portfolio being more attractive, in 2023 alone we organically grew our rewards program by 9% and increased new enrolments by 24% year over year. And those growth numbers are exclusive of the Radisson Americas rewards program integration. Additionally with our broader portfolio of hotels, we are strengthening our existing strategic partnerships. For example, we became the first triple A preferred hotel supplier that has been added in a decade, which widens our distribution network to deliver more business to franchises. This partnership is particularly attractive given that triple A's 64 million members account for 31% of paid room nights annually across all hotel chains in North America.

Existing owners recognize the increasing value of our brands and choose to remain with Choice as seen in our industry-leading voluntary franchise retention rate of 98%. Our franchises also continue to choose to grow their business with Choice Hotels as half of the franchise agreements awarded last year were with existing or returning owners. Furthermore, our brand equity is elevating. 2023 was a year where J. D. Power ranked two of our fastest growing new construction brand number one in guest satisfaction, Cambria hotels in the upscale category, and WoodSpring Suites in the economy extended stay category. Additionally this past year, we successfully improved our guest satisfaction scores while our franchises continue to leverage our best-in-class training tools and solutions to deliver exceptional guest experiences.

Turning now to our international business, 2023 was one of the Choice's most successful years for international development as the company expanded its global footprint across multiple markets. In the Scandinavian region, Choice extended its master franchise agreement with one of the largest hotel companies for an additional 10-year term. In Spain, we secured a distribution partnership with a leading hotel chain. In France, we signed an agreement that will double Choice's unit footprint the region. And in Australia, we acquired the franchise rights for a fellow pure-play franchiser. We believe we have a significant opportunity to further gain international market share and realize additional EBITDA growth in the coming years. Moving on to our platform business, we are very encouraged by the traction we are gaining our efforts to expand that business and our ancillary revenue growth opportunities.

One example, we are very pleased with is the new cobrand credit cards. This strategic partnership is a long-term tailwind given that it drives loyalty to our brand as our reward members with credit cards stay with us on average four times as often as non-rewards members. And, it delivers revenues based on cardholder spend. Since its launched the cobrand program has exceeded expectations on new account sign-ups and card spend. The higher quality of our portfolio is resonating not only with current guests but also is starting to attract new guests who have not considered our brand in the past. This evolving customer base gives us the ability to continue to draw more travel and blue chip national brands as partners such as our recent partnership with Tesla and Grubhub.

We are very pleased with our successful acquisition of the Radisson Americas brand which outperformed our underwritten expectations. The seamless and faster than anticipated integration process is now complete. In 2023, we meaningfully enhanced the performance of the existing Radisson Americas hotels, which is the first step in any successful integration. Specifically, upon integration of the digital channel through year-end, we drove over a 20% increase in domestic bookings for the Radisson Americas brands year-over-year, with particularly strong results for the Country Inn & Suites brand, which grew by over 30%. This growth in direct digital business was driven in part by the higher traffic and booking conversion rates, which in turn had the added benefit of lowering customer acquisition costs for our franchisees.

The significant performance lift since digital integration is already attracting new hotel development commitments. In fact, the 19 domestic franchise agreements awarded for the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson brand in 2023, with a most for that brand in seven years. And the pace of new development is accelerating, as over half of those agreements were executed in December alone. The excitement generated by the Radisson Americas Business Unit is further underlined by its RevPAR performance. For full-year 2023, the Radisson upscale brand RevPAR grew 9% year-over-year, outperforming the STR upscale segment by approximately 2 percentage points and achieving RevPAR index share gains versus competitors. At the same time, we've also been able to lower distribution costs for legacy Choice and Radisson Americas franchise owners by negotiating improved terms with a key third-party distribution partner.

This has helped lower the overall franchisees operating costs, which is critical in a time of high labor costs and interest rates. Additionally, thanks to our integration expertise and strategic investments in our state-of-the-art proprietary technologies, we have achieved $85 million in annual recurring synergies, exceeding our original target by over 6%. We are now moving into the second phase of creating value from the acquisition by growing the Radisson Americas portfolio in the Americas region. Now that our unique and compelling franchisee success model is in place, we are starting to see momentum in franchisee interest across the combined portfolio. As we have discussed, the Radisson Americas acquisition has meaningfully enhanced our growth profile as it created a step function change in the size of our business, expanded our rewards program, extended our co-brand credit card opportunity, increased our geographic reach in the Americas region, and opened a new incremental earning streams.

This combination benefits all of our guests by giving them more options across the Choice network and providing them with more incentives through our membership program. We now have 64 million Choice Privileges members who book directly with our franchisees, drive more revenue, and return more often than non-members, which translates to lower customer acquisition costs and higher margins for our franchisees. Additionally, as Radisson Americas hotels start to fully leverage Choices Hotel profitability tools, we anticipate enhanced profitability as these target solutions drive savings of up to 20% on the franchisee level. We believe we have proven our ability to unlock incremental value through the combination that neither would have accomplished on its own.

We are confident in our ability to replicate this great achievement with the Wyndham combination, given our expertise and capabilities in acquiring and integrating hotel brands, our demonstrated track record of improving the delivery of direct business to franchisees, and our successful strategy of growing our portfolio with hotels that generate higher royalties per unit. With regard to our proposal to acquire Wyndham, we remain committed to this compelling, pro-competitive combination. At its core, our proposed combination with Wyndham is driven by the natural fit of the 2 companies coming together to accelerate value creation for all stakeholders. It offers a compelling value for Wyndham shareholders today with an opportunity to meaningfully enhance the combined company's value as we realize synergies and drive additional growth.

Importantly, we are confident that we can complete the transaction given our well-positioned, low-leveraged balance sheet and continued progress on the regulatory front. For Choice shareholders, our proposal provides significant financial and strategic benefits. Wyndham shareholders would receive a substantial premium and immediate value for their shares without the execution risk associated with Wyndham's standalone strategy. Importantly, the proposal represents a multiple that Wyndham has never achieved absent COVID disruptions. In contrast, Choice historically trades at an attractive level, representing compelling consideration for Wyndham shareholders. The value we consistently generate for our shareholders is due in part to our strong growth profile and prudent balance sheet management.

A hotel lobby in vibrant colors, reflecting the hospitality and global presence of the hotel franchising company.
A hotel lobby in vibrant colors, reflecting the hospitality and global presence of the hotel franchising company.

The combination of Choices and Wyndham's asset-light businesses is expected to generate significant cash flow available to rapidly reduce leverage while still investing for growth. Both sets of shareholders would have the opportunity to participate in more than $2 billion of incremental value creation expected from the $150 million in annual run rate synergies that we believe a combined company would unlock. This value would be unlocked by bringing Choice's best-in-class franchisee success model to the Wyndham network. Regarding next steps, we are continuing to progress on the regulatory process as expected. We are confident that we are well-positioned for regulatory approval and can complete the transaction in a customary time frame. Over the last six-plus months, it has become clear that Wyndham's board is deeply entrenched and unwilling to take the actions that are in the best interest of their shareholders.

In fact, their behavior is denying Wyndham shareholders the opportunity to realize significant value creation while receiving customary protections. As a result, we recently nominated a highly qualified slate of independent directors for election at Wyndham's 2024 annual meeting. If elected, these nominees are committed to their fiduciary duties and will act in the best interest of Wyndham's shareholders, which we believe is to move with urgency to maximize the value that can be created through a combined company. We're pleased that we've continued to receive positive feedback from both companies, shareholders, who see significant upside potential in this transaction, and want to see Wyndham's Board, engaged in negotiations. Importantly, since the beginning, we have continued to see support from our franchisees.

Wyndham has mischaracterized franchisee sentiment. And who actually represents the franchisees. Our franchisees are represented by their own franchisee associations and advisory councils, and they elect the leaders of these groups to represent them. They know our brands, they know our performance, and their feedback is vital to us. Our largest franchisee association, the Choice Hotels Owners Council, which represents over 3,000 Choice Hotels and has been working with Choice for more than 50 years to maximize profitability for hotel owners, recently shared with its members that there are multiple benefits for existing franchisees to Choice continuing to expand its brand portfolio. That Choice has always been thoughtful in its approach to acquisitions.

And that they believe choice will prioritize franchisee benefits in any future acquisition. And I'm pleased to say that we are in the process of aligning with our franchisee associations on our plan of action, which would ensure that franchisees' needs are continuously prioritized as part of the proposed combination. We believe a combined company would deliver clear benefits to both Choice and Wyndham franchisees. These include lower hotel operating costs, less reliance on third-party distribution channels and access to Choice's award-winning technology. Regarding the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, AAHOA, we continue to have good conversations with and have been working with the organization's leaders for many years on a variety of topics aligned with its mission, including industry-related policy and legislative matters.

In closing, we're looking forward to all we could accomplish as a combined company. And at the same time, we remain focused and committed to executing on each of Choice's growth drivers that I have discussed. We are a forward-looking company that takes deliberate actions and is adapting to the evolving industry landscape. The results we achieved in 2023 demonstrate the effectiveness of our growth strategy and confirm that our proactive approach in this changing environment is working. I'll now turn the call over to our CFO, Scott?

Scott Oaksmith: Thanks, Pat and good morning, everyone. Today, I will discuss our fourth quarter and full-year 2023 results, update you on our balance sheet and capital allocation, and provide our outlook for 2024. Throughout my remarks today, I would like to note that all figures are inclusive of the Radisson Americas portfolio and exclude certain one-time items, including Radisson Americas integration costs, as well as transaction pursuit costs, which impacted our reported results. For full-year 2023, a combination of higher than expected growth of the Choice legacy portfolio across our more revenue intense brands and markets, strong effective royalty rate growth, successful integration of the Radisson Americas portfolio, and the robust performance of our platform, procurement and international businesses drove full-year adjusted EBITDA of $540.5 million which exceeded our full-year guidance.

Our full-year adjusted EBITDA represents a new record eclipsing the $0.01 last year, increasing 13% compared to 2022 and growing 45% compared to the same period of 2019, which was our pre-pandemic peak. Even excluding the contribution from Radisson Americas, our full-year 2023 adjusted EBITDA grew over 8% on a comparable basis year-over-year. Our full-year 2023 adjusted EPS also exceeded our previously issued guidance reaching $6.11 per share, a 16% increase year-over-year. For the fourth quarter of 2023 compared to the same period of 2022, our adjusted EBITDA grew 11% to $125 million and our adjusted EPS increased 14% to $1.44 per share. Let me turn to our key revenue levers, which include our unit growth, royalty rate and RevPAR performance.

In terms of unit growth, our strategic goal has been to accelerate quality room growth across more revenue intense brands and markets, while simultaneously growing our effective royalty rates, which ultimately results in an outsized increase in royalties. In addition to our mix shift strategy for the broader portfolio, we are driving more revenue intensity at the individual hotel and brand level across the system. In fact, new hotels we added within a brand generated an average of nearly 20% higher royalty revenue than hotels exiting the brand. For full-year 2023, we reported domestic unit growth of 1.4% year-over-year across our more revenue intense upscale, extended stay and midscale portfolio, which exceeded our guidance. Importantly, our domestic system size of the more revenue intense brands for the Choice legacy portfolio grew by 1.8% for units and 2.4% for rooms year-over-year.

At the same time, our international portfolio increased by 2.6% for units and 2% for rooms year-over-year. We are particularly pleased with our outlook for international growth as our international unit pipeline grew by 33% since the last quarter and more than doubling the number of hotels over the prior year. During 2023, we also leveraged our best-in-class conversion capability as we expanded our global rooms pipeline for conversion hotels by 16% since the last quarter and 34% over the prior year. I am pleased to report that our overall global rooms pipeline increased 6% quarter-over-quarter reaching over 1,030 hotels representing over 105,000 rooms at year-end. This pipeline will serve as a strong platform for future growth. These results demonstrate that the deliberate decisions and strategic investments in our franchisee tools, brand portfolio and platform capabilities are resulting in strong returns across our company.

First, we strengthened our upscale franchise business. For full-year 2023, we grew our domestic upscale rooms portfolio by 6.3% year-over-year and expanded its domestic unit pipeline by 5% quarter-over-quarter. Second, we accelerated our growth across the extended stay brands portfolio. For full-year 2023, we grew our domestic extended stay unit system size by approximately 16% year-over-year highlighted by over 60 new hotel openings, a record breaking year. At the same time, our newest brand Everhome Suites is gaining meaningful traction across the development community with 69 domestic projects in the pipeline, including 16 under construction. We remain very optimistic about our extended stay franchise business and expect the number of our extended stay units to increase at an average annual growth rate of approximately 15% over the next five years.

Third, we continue to invest in our midscale portfolio. Within this category, we grew our domestic upper midscale rooms pipeline by 9% quarter-over-quarter, and for the fourth increased the number of domestic franchise agreements awarded by 6% year-over-year. Importantly, our first new comfort prototype opened in 2023 and our flagship brand continues to attract significant developer demand with over 130 projects in the domestic pipeline. And fourth, our economy transient hotels are continuing to benefit from their improved value proposition. As a result, we expanded our domestic economy transient unit pipeline by 9% quarter-over-quarter and the new hotels we added in 2023 generated higher royalty revenue than the hotels exiting. Our effective royalty rate also continues to be a significant source of revenue growth.

Our domestic system effective royalty rate for full-year 2023 increased six basis points year-over-year, representing nearly $6 million of incremental royalties, including a five basis point increase to 5.1% for the Choice legacy brands. The third revenue lever I will discuss is our RevPAR performance. Our full-year 2023 domestic RevPAR increased 12.7% versus the same period of 2019 and 10 basis points year-over-year. Our fourth quarter domestic RevPAR increased 13.1% from the same quarter 2019, including a 15.2% growth from the Choice legacy portfolio. RevPAR was down 3.9% year-over-year in the quarter, reflecting tougher year-over-year comps as we were the first hotel company to return to and significantly exceed pre-pandemic RevPAR levels.

While we expect to face tougher domestic comps at the start of this year, we expect RevPAR to increase as the year progresses, given the favorable long-term business and leisure trends, and the initiatives we put in place to capitalize on these tailwinds. We are pleased to report that our full-year 2023 international portfolio wide RevPAR increased 11% year-over-year with the Americas region excluding the U.S. growing 20% year-over-year. At the same time, and as a result of our strong organic growth and the acquisition of Radisson Americas, we more than doubled the EBITDA contribution from our international portfolio in 2023. We continue to build on the strong momentum of our platform business. Specifically for full-year 2023, we increased our platform and procurement services fees by 18% to $75.1 million year-over-year as we benefited from expanded offerings to our franchisees and guests, additional annual convention revenues from higher attendance, increased transaction volume with our qualified vendors, and the broader reach of our initiatives.

We believe that we can drive this strong revenue growth in the years ahead as we continue to expand our platform and increase the number of products and services we offer to over 7,500 hotels, millions of guests and other travel partners. I'd like now to turn to our well positioned low leverage balance sheet marked by net debt-to-BITDA of 2.9x, which continues to be below the low end of our targeted range of 3x to 4x. In 2023, we generated operating cash flows totaling nearly $300 million. We also further enhanced our balance sheet in the fourth quarter as we closed on a new $500 million term loan, which increased our liquidity to approximately $650 million as of year-end. We utilized our strong cash flows and under levered balance sheet to continue to invest in the business, generating impressive growth in our profitability as well as acquiring over a $110 million of Wyndham common stock.

In 2023, we were also able to return over $422 million to shareholders, including nearly $57 million in cash dividends and $366 million in share repurchases. We achieved all of this while remaining below our targeted leverage levels. With our strong cash flow and ample debt capacity, we are committed to creating value for our shareholders by accretively investing to further expand our business and also effectively support the acquisition and successful integration of Wyndham. Our capital allocation priorities remain unchanged, and we are well-positioned to continue our long track record of delivering outsized value for our shareholders. Our priority continues to be investing in our business to drive organic growth. We will continue to make targeted investments in our business to drive growth focused on hotels that generate higher royalties per unit, and further enhance the franchise-owner's value proposition, while expanding our international and platform businesses.

Secondly, we remain committed to value-creating M&A, focusing on opportunities like Wyndham, where we can both improve the profitability of the existing franchisees as well as grow the combined portfolio. Historically, our strong cash flow and ample debt capacity have been more than sufficient to allocate capital to both organic and inorganic growth, allowing us to return capital to shareholders through our dividend and share repurchase programs. Thirdly, as demonstrated by our continued efforts and the confidence we have in our success, the greatest opportunity to create value for all stakeholders is to realize the over $2 billion of initial shareholder value creation present in a combination with Wyndham. Should this not transpire, our current under-leveraged balance sheet and attractive growth trajectory, coupled with a significant discount to the intrinsic value of our stock, provide a very attractive return opportunity through the repurchase of shares.

Before opening it up for questions, I'd like to turn to our expectations for what lies ahead. As we look into 2024, we expect to generate adjusted EBITDA in the range of $580 million and $600 million. We anticipate this growth to be driven by incremental contributions from Radisson Americas, including the expected additional cost synergies of approximately $2 million, as well as organic growth across more revenue-intense hotels and markets, robust effective royalty rate growth, continued growth from our co-branded credit card, strong international business, and other factors. This outlook does not account for any additional M&A, repurchase of the company stock or other capital markets activities. We expect our full-year 2024 adjusted diluted earnings per share to range between $6.30 and $6.60 per share.

Underlying our outlook are the following assumptions for full-year 2024. We expect the domestic system year-over-year growth of the more revenue-intense portfolio brands to continue to accelerate and be approximately 2%. We project our domestic RevPAR to range between flat to 2% year-over-year. And finally, we anticipate our full-year 2024 effective royalty rate to grow in the mid-single digits year-over-year. Today's results are a testament that our strategy is working, and we intend to keep investing in those areas of our business that will generate the highest return on our capital. At this time, Pat and I would be happy to answer any questions. Operator?

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