* 2011 operating profit $559 mln vs consensus $543 mln
* Growth led by U.S. recovery and China expansion
* Expect 2012 to benefit from emerging market demand
* One preferred bidder for Barclay New York hotel
* Shares off 1.5 percent at 1,381 pence
* 2011 dividend up 15 pct to 55 US cents (Adds further analyst comment, updates shares)
By David Jones
LONDON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - World No 1 hotelier InterContinental Hotels is looking to emerging markets and especially China to drive future growth after a recovery in the United States and a string of new Chinese hotel openings helped push 2011 profits up 26 percent.
The hotelier, home to Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn as well as the InterContinental brand, said business was improving in the U.S, led by a healthier economy and job creation in a region which makes well over half the group’s profit.
Greater China, which was reporting numbers as a separate region for the first time, saw the group’s highest growth rate as it opened over 8,000 new rooms in the year, while over a quarter of the group’s new global hotel pipeline is in China.
Chief Executive Richard Solomons said that despite the euro zone crisis he was upbeat about the future as people still wanted to travel for business and leisure, while emerging markets were growing strongly.
“We go where the travellers are. We see good momentum in the U.S. economy with economic data there quite positive while China is our fastest growing region and our business there has doubled in the last two years,” he told a results briefing on Tuesday.
The group earns nearly 10 percent of profits from its 167 Chinese hotels with a further 147 in the pipeline to open soon, and the hotelier plans to introduce another upmarket brand alongside InterContinental to meet the growing demand.
Growth in global revenue per available room (RevPAR), a key hotel industry measure, grew at 6.2 percent in 2011 with the U.S. and China ahead 7.9 percent and 10.7 percent. While there was a fourth-quarter slowdown worldwide to 4.6 percent, the January growth rate recovered to 6.0 percent.
Shares in InterContinental were down 1.5 percent at 1,381 pence by 1410 GMT in a slightly lower London stock market. The stock has risen 50 percent from a low of 939 pence in August 2011 and outperformed the FTSE 100 index by more than 21 percent during that time.
“We expect that a continuing strong performance in the U.S. and Asia will likely lead to 5 percent plus upgrades to consensus 2012 forecasts,” said analyst Ian Rennardson at brokers Jefferies, after he described the 2011 results as solid with a decent outlook statement.
The hotelier said it had a preferred bidder for its flagship InterContinental New York Barclay hotel which has been for sale for a year with a price tag estimated at $300-350 million, and analysts said a sale may prompt a share buyback or special dividend as it moves to be a management and franchise operator.
“We believe that the New York asset market has improved, and that any sale would be accompanied by a return of capital in some form,” said analyst Simon Champion at Deutsche Bank.
The British group, which operates more than 660,000 rooms in over 4,500 hotels worldwide posted a 26 percent rise in 2011 operating profits to $559 million beating a $543 million ThomsonReuters consensus estimate, while annual revenue rose 9 percent to $1.77 billion.
The group 2011 dividend rose 15 percent to 55 US cents.
InterContinental, like other hoteliers in 2011 suffered from unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, the tsunami in Japan and the euro zone crisis, but recovery and growth elsewhere has helped to offset these negative factors, analysts said.
Europe, which accounts for 15 percent of group profit, showed a small fall of 0.2 percent in RevPAR in the fourth quartet due to a poor economic conditions, but Solomons said RevPAR had recovered to grow 3 percent in January.
Earlier this month, Sheraton-owner Starwood posted higher-than-expected fourth quarter earnings but a flat Europe worried investors and its shares dipped, while Marriott reports its fourth quarter on February 15. (Reporting by David Jones; Editing by Sophie Walker)