(Reuters) - Online travel company Expedia Inc said on Thursday that it would buy Orbitz Worldwide Inc for about $1.33 billion (863 million pounds) in cash to bring on the rival's programmers and widen its customer base.
While Expedia and larger rival Priceline Group, have embarked on acquisitions sprees to dominate the online travel business, three antitrust experts say the Orbitz deal is likely to get U.S. regulatory approval.
"There's no entry barriers," said Andre Barlow, a partner in Washington law firm Doyle, Barlow & Mazard PLLC.
Expedia and Priceline face increasing competition from the likes of Google Inc, airlines and hotel chains, which also sell itineraries on their websites.
Shares of Orbitz, whose brands include CheapTickets and ebookers, were up nearly 22 percent at $11.73 in afternoon trading, just shy of the $12-per-share deal price.
Expedia stock rose 15 percent to $90.02. Shares of TripAdvisor Inc, which Expedia spun off in 2011, rose more than 23 percent as investors speculated that it would be another industry target.
Expedia bought Travelocity in January and Wotif Group in November. Besides running the website that bears its name, it also owns Hotels.com, Hotwire and a host of other brands.
In terms of future acquisitions, Expedia Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said during a call Thursday with investors: "We have got plenty on our plate, and we're not necessarily looking to jump around in the (coming) weeks or months."
Instead, the company expects to grow in the short term by bringing in programmers, designers and marketers from Orbitz, as heavy competition among employers has led to a scarcity of high-quality talent, Chief Financial Officer Mark Okerstrom said.
"One of the things that Orbitz brings to us is a very strong brand, a very strong customer base," Okerstrom said in an interview. He also praised the company's loyalty programs.
Okerstrom described the acquisition bid for Orbitz as "competitive" during the investor call. Orbitz had been exploring a sale and had drawn interest from various companies, according to media reports last month.
S&P Capital IQ analyst Tuna Amobi said the purchase price was fair because Orbitz would help Expedia reap full benefit of its investments and grow in international markets, where the strong U.S. dollar has hurt sales.
However, at more than five times Expedia Inc's market value, Priceline, which owns Booking.com, OpenTable and Kayak, remains tough competition, he said.
"This deal is a good step in the right direction," Amobi said. "It's very important for them to signal to the world that they are a hunter as opposed to being hunted."
Okerstrom downplayed concerns that consolidation would drive up prices, saying that there are more deals for consumers as companies vie for greater share of the $1.3 trillion industry.
Expedia Inc said it expected the deal to generate $75 million in savings and revenue, amounting to an extra 75 cents in adjusted earnings per share, in the year after the two bookings agencies are integrated.
The company said the deal was valued at $1.6 billion, including debt. Spokeswoman Sarah Waffle Gavin said the equity value was based on 110,798,050 Orbitz shares outstanding.
Additional reporting by Sweta Singh and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Savio D'Souza and Lisa Von Ahn