Online travel company priceline.com is up 50% since the year started. Some believe the stock could hit $1,000 per share.



NEW YORK (TheStreet) - As William Shatner turns 81 today, the company he's most closely associated with, priceline.com(:PCLN), could see a major milestone itself: $1,000 per share.

Piper Jaffray analyst Michael J. Olson believes priceline could hit $1,000 per share in the next 24 months, as the online travel market continues to expand, and priceline continues to maintain its lead in the international market. He rates priceline shares "overweight," and has a $763 price target on shares.

Known for its "Negotiator" ads with Shatner (the company killed off Shatner's character earlier this year), priceline has been able to keep operating margins fairly constant (around 47%), and international booking growth has remained strong.

Shares are up 50.45% year-to-date, but Olson believes there could be an additional 40% or more worth of upside, with non-GAAP earnings of $50 per share realistic in 2015. In the past year, shares of Priceline are up 54.2%.

Olson notes that 78% of priceline's business comes from overseas, and that the company "continues to lead in Europe and has pushed into emerging markets faster than any other online travel bookings site." He estimates that priceline has captured a 6% market share in Europe through Booking.com, more than three times that of rival Expedia(:EXPE) and six times that of Orbitz(:OWW).

The company is also up against Google(:GOOG) in the online travel space, but has been able to stay ahead of its competition, especially in the international market, where it's the leader. The Google launch of Hotel Finder, a change in Google search results and worries about the impact of metasearch travel queries persist, but Olson notes priceline has proven resilient to competition in the past, and is likely to do so in the future.

Priceline continues to suggest that competition is not a major concern, at least on the strength of recent results. The Norwalk, Ct.-based company recently reported better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings and first-quarter guidance, as CEO Jeffrey Boyd said the company's brands gained market share.

Fourth-quarter earnings were $5.37 per share on $990.77 million in revenue. Wall Street analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected Priceline to earn $5.05 per share in the fourth-quarter on $967.9 million in revenue. 2011 revenue jumped 40.2% to $4.36 billion, and international revenues soared 77.8% year-over-year.

The company has also strengthened its balance sheet recently, and improved its financial position, as it seeks to expand its position across the globe.

Deutsche Bank analyst Jeetil Patel is positive on priceline, especially after it recently issued a $875 million convertible bond offering, to help fund a buyback of stock, and add cash to the company balance sheet.

Patel notes that $690.5 million in cash will be added to the balance sheet, on top of $1 billion in onshore cash, and $2.1 billion in net cash. "We believe the offering was opportunistic, but could be used to fund acquisitions and/or further share repurchasing as opportunities arise," Patel wrote in his March research note. Patel rates priceline shares "buy" with a $713 price target.

With the international segment growing nearly 80% year-over-year, Olson believes that Priceline shares could reach $1,000, even with slowing U.S growth.

Priceline.com shares are up 0.33% to $705.94.

Interested in more on priceline.com? See TheStreet Ratings' report card for this stock.

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--Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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