Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) is moving full steam ahead into 2018.
The Miami-based company reported strong fourth-quarter and full-year earnings Wednesday, Jan. 24, that topped Wall Street's expectations and put the company ahead of previously set goals.
"Frankly, we were pleasantly surprised at how strong 2017 was," Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain told TheStreet. The momentum coming out of last year sets Royal Caribbean up well for a strong increase on that success in 2018.
RCL reported full-year earnings rose 23.8% from a year earlier to $7.53 a share, topping analysts' expectations of $7.41. Sales totaled $8.78 billion, up 3.3% from 2016 and also besting Wall Street's forecasts.
"I think we've found a real sweet spot," Fain said. "Cruising is coming of age."
Royal Caribbean's strong earnings come in the middle of wave season, the period from January through March when the cruising industry offers stellar deals for trips that might cost a lot more come Memorial Day. Aside from just fattening cruise line's cash pile in the colder winter months, wave season also allows the companies to get a handle on what their business might look like in six months' time.
"[Wave season] tends to be a bellwether for how the market is doing," Fain said. "We based a lot of our buoyant outlook on how well wave season has been doing."
Royal Caribbean announced Wednesday it expects full-year 2018 earnings between $8.55 and $8.75 a share with net yields increasing 1.5% to 3.5%. If the company is correct in its earnings forecast, 2018 full-year earnings will grow at least 13.5% from this year.
The company also detailed in its earnings report a new employee bonus program called the Thank-you, Thank-you Bonus. The $80 million program will give every one of RCL's 66,000 employees a bonus equal to 5% of their salary in the form of equity vesting over the next three years.
The program means everyone working for Royal Caribbean will have a stake in the company. It applies to all workers but corporate officers, Fain said.
Fain explained that the Thank-you Thank-you bonus isn't a result of a cash windfall from U.S. tax reform, as was the case in the bonus rewards recently announced by the likes of Apple Inc. (AAPL) or Walmart Stores Inc. (WMT) .
Instead, RCL's bonus program was implemented as the company beat its 2014 Double-Double goal to double earnings per share and achieve double-digit return on invested capital by 2017.
Tax reform will broadly have little impact on Royal Caribbean's bottom line, Fain said. But if a lower personal tax rate leads to more disposable income among households, his company could see an uptick in booking as customers have more freedom to spend on vacations.
Last year came to an impressive close, especially given the fact that hurricanes Harvey and Irma rocked the bread and butter of Royal Caribbean's cruising routes in the late summer. But, according to Fain, the hurricanes' impact is accounted for and well in the past.
"Aside from the financials, I haven't thought about it," Fain said. And the financials have fully recovered, the CEO noted.
Investors have taken well to Royal Caribbean's strong 2017 performance. Shares gained 2.8% to $130.76 by Wednesday afternoon. In the last 12 months, the stock has rallied nearly 37%. And since Fain took the helm in 1988, shares are up about 1,300% compared with the S&P 500's 983% gain in the same time.
But Fain won't take credit for driving Royal Caribbean's stock price higher.
"We're not driving investor optimism," Fain said, "the market is. Our job is to run the best cruise out there."
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