NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--After Orbitz Worldwide Inc.'s (OWW) first-quarter loss narrowed more than expected on a shift in cost timing, the company is looking forward to a partnership with American Express Co. (AXP) to accelerate revenue growth late in the year.
Chief Executive Barney Harford said the second half of the year also should benefit from improved capabilities linked to Orbitz's expensive tech upgrades last year and a focus on more-sophisticated and efficient online marketing.
Shares in the company, which operates its namesake site as well as CheapTickets and European-focused ebookers, were up 5.1% to $4.10 a share in recent trading.
The American Express alliance is the most-significant new partnership in what the online-travel company calls its private-label business, in which Orbitiz delivers travel products to customers of its private-label partners by building and tailoring travel websites for them, supplying inventory and providing customer service on bookings. It books the sales and then shares revenue with the partners.
Chief Financial Officer Russell C. Hammer said the American Express partnership would be the primary driver for revenue acceleration in the back half of the year, speaking on a conference call discussing first-quarter results.
Thursday, Orbitz forecast its top line likely would increase more than analysts expected this year. Its outlook indicated first-half sales growth of roughly 3% would later gain momentum for create a full-year sales increase of 4% to 8%. That is largely above the consensus expectation of analysts, who predicted a 4% sales increase for 2012 according to a poll by Thomson Reuters.
Hammer said the partnership, officially launching in the third quarter, would begin to show real revenue and earnings acceleration starting in the fourth quarter.
But Orbitz's current-quarter outlook was tepid, partly because costs from the Amex partnership shifted from the first quarter to the second. Orbitz expects a decline in adjusted Ebitda, a profitability metric standing for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Its revenue forecast bracketed the analyst consensus.
The cost shift into the second quarter partially explains how the bottom line in the first quarter exceeded expectations. Orbitz's six-cent loss was narrower than the eight-cent loss analysts expected, and adjusted Ebitda topped Orbitz's target.
Nonetheless, the loss also narrowed on growth in Orbitz's European-focused travel business and stronger demand for hotel and vacation packages. Its ebookers business, which focuses on European travelers, recorded a 33% jump in the number of hotel-room nights booked in the first quarter, helping lift room nights back to rising after they slid throughout 2011.
Europe, though plagued by a sovereign-debt crisis and economic uncertainty, has been a growth driver along with other international markets as the U.S. business matures for online travel agencies. Orbitz's exposure in Europe is largely in the central and northern parts of the region rather than the weaker southern European area.
Orbitz, however, relies on domestic and air travel more than international and hotel business relative to its bigger competitors, Expedia Inc. (EXPE) and Priceline.com Inc. (PCLN). That weights Orbitz's results toward the areas of travel with the most-plodding growth trends, though Orbitz has been working to expand its hotel and international business.
Indeed, air revenue represented the biggest portion of Orbitz's top line in the latest period, and it fell 0.4% while the smaller hotel and vacation-package businesses had 9.5% and 17% revenue gains, respectively.
Over all in the latest period, Orbitz reported a loss of $6.5 million, or six cents a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $10.9 million, or 11 cents a share.
Revenue rose 2.6% to $189.8 million. The company's forecast in February called for revenue of $187 million to $193 million, which was below analysts' estimates at the time.
Overhead costs rose 2.5%, slowing from the fourth quarter's 5.7% increase and the third quarter's 17% rise. In February, Orbitz completed an expensive technology-platform migration, the investments for which had weighed on its bottom line last year.
-By Joan E. Solsman, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2291; email@example.com
--Mia Lamar contributed to this article.