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The move resolves uncertainty about the HNA investment as Hilton positions itself to take advantage of strong economic trends.

Hilton Worldwide repurchased 16.5 million shares of its stock for $1.17 billion from China’s HNA Group this month, as HNA finished divesting its 26 percent stake in the company.

Hilton issued $1.5 billion of debt in April, using a portion of the proceeds for the stock repurchase from HNA, which earlier this month said it would sell its Hilton stake. HNA separately sold 66 million shares of Hilton stock as a public offering.

HNA, which has invested in a variety of global travel and hospitality companies, has been selling assets under orders from the Chinese government. “With this offering, they have now fully exited their investment in Hilton,” Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said during an investor call Thursday.

Many Wall Street analysts considered the HNA sale a positive development for Hilton, as previous uncertainty about the fate of the investment potentially weighed down Hilton’s stock price.

The news came as Hilton reported strong first-quarter earnings and raised its outlook for the full year, citing favorable economic trends and rising business and consumer confidence.

System-wide comparable RevPAR, or revenue per available room, increased 3.9 percent in the first quarter, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. Net income attributable to company shareholders for the first quarter more than tripled to $161 million, or 51 cents a diluted share, compared with $47 million, or 14 cents a diluted share, in the same quarter the previous year. Total revenue rose 9.4 percent to $2.07 billion.

“The results continue to demonstrate the strength of our simplified, fee-based business model,’ Nassetta said.

Hilton said it now expects adjusted earnings for the full year to be $2.62 to $2.71 a share, compared with its previous forecast of $2.49 to $2.60 a share.

Flexible Pricing and Connected Rooms

Hilton recently introduced what it calls “customer-centric pricing” in the United States. Travelers who want a fully refundable reservation pay more than the former Best Available Rate, which Hilton will eliminate. A lower, semi-flexible rate gives other travelers the opportunity to cancel with two to three days’ notice more than Hilton’s typical cancellation policy, which is 48 hours’ advance notice at most of its hotels.

“This new pricing structure provides added flexibility for those who want it and cost savings for those who don’t,” Nassetta said. “We predict this will reduce the number of last-minute cancellations and increase the number of rooms available.” The updated pricing will be available at all Hilton properties globally later this summer.

The company also continues to slowly roll out its smart hotel room technology. It now has more than 3,100 properties, or about 60 percent of its global system, that allow guests to unlock doors using their mobile phones. Hilton said its guests have unlocked 6.7 million doors using a digital key.

Upbeat Travelers

Leisure and business travelers, both in the U.S. and internationally, are feeling more comfortable and spending more when they travel, according to Hilton.

“Consumer confidence is at very high levels, and business confidence has been increasing and is at reasonably high levels,” Nassetta said. “In a post-tax-reform world, you have more money in consumers’ pockets and a lot more money in businesses’ pockets. You have a regulatory environment that is more stable, I’d say in both the tax and regulatory policy areas.”

As a result, he added, “you’re seeing businesses hire more and spend more, which is driving more demand in our business.”

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Tags: earnings, hilton

Photo credit: The Hilton Amsterdam Hotel is pictured in this photo from 2016. The company reported strong first-quarter earnings Thursday. DennisM2 / Flickr

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