If you're looking for a clear signal the lodging sector is out of favor, check out what happened after Starwood Hotels & Resorts ( HOT) posted a generally solid quarter Thursday. Starwood's revenue per available room at same-store, owned hotels was up 12.8%, compared with guidance of 10% to 12%. Margins improved 360 basis points at these hotels. Earnings came in at 74 cents a share, above the 59-cent consensus estimate, according to First Call. True, some of the upside did come from gains on asset sales and tax benefits. But the main reason shares were knocked down was that investors are growing increasingly worried that leisure spending is set to drop for the rest of the year. Starwood fell 5.7% Thursday. On Friday, the shares rebounded a bit, rising over 1% to $52.40. Susquehanna Financial analyst Robert LaFleur gave an amusing take on the results in a research note Friday. "Watching our screen yesterday after HOT's 2Q earnings report we were reminded of the scene in Meatballs where before the big competition, Bill Murray tells his hapless campers that no matter what -- even if they win -- all the good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from their arch rival Camp Mohawk. The campers then whip themselves into a frenzy chanting, `It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!'" One key issue the market may be misinterpreting with Starwood is that its hotels, which are mostly in urban locations, cater more to business travel and high-end consumers. "Starwood is lighter than others related to leisure," says Dean Frankel, a portfolio manager with Urdang Securities Management, which owns the stock. However, Frankel says he's hearing from others that sentiment is everything in the sector right now and many expect a significant slowdown in consumer spending. Prior to earnings, Frankel sold off about 20% of his fund's Starwood position after the stock enjoyed a nice run-up above $60 in early July.
On its earnings call, Starwood tried to downplay these worries. "We don't see any evidence of a slowdown, speaking specifically about the consumer/leisure business," management said, adding that the firm's dependence on the low-end leisure business is very low. Of course, another worry looming is that a general slowdown in the economy will hurt business travel. Frankel still expects lodging to have a nice 2007, but he's concerned that if there's a hiccup -- say, RevPar growth in the industry slows from 9% this year to 6% next year -- stocks could face more pressure. "Next year will be good, just maybe not as great this year," Frankel says. He says the market may be predicting too much of a slowdown in the sector, yet at some point, you can't fight the tape, he acknowledges. As well, the only near-term catalysts for the group might be a resolution to the Middle East crisis, or a clear signal that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will stop cutting rates, he says. Until then, lodging stocks could remain a real bummer, although there might still be a
bull case to be made for the sector.