Priceline Group rises on solid financial fundamentalsNews / OnlineBy Sean O'Neil | November 7, 2016Share This article was originally published on Hedge funds have long had a crush on Priceline Group.In autumn 2015, they ran up its stock price to above $1,400 a share, after the company signed an semi-exclusive deal with TripAdvisor to participate in the hotel metasearch platform's instant booking function.The connection lets users instantly book trips from within the TripAdvisor metasearch tool via Priceline's agencies, such as Booking.com.The stock price remains at at historic highs — at $1,480 a share at the market close today — partly based on the strength of that story of a rare advantage over rivals.The stock is popular event though the impact of "instant book" on its growth and advertising efficiency has not been significant, according to the company.Priceline Group can do little wrong in the eyes of hedge funds. Even today's decision that it will slow the pace at which it expands OpenTable, a reservation service, did nothing to dim the luster of the company in investors' eyes.There are several reasons for this. Here are some highlights from today's conference call, in which chief executive Jeff Boyd discussed the third-quarter results with investment analysts.Room-night growth beat expectations Across all key regions and all demand channels, Priceline Group saw growth in the number of room nights booked -- to 150 million room nights overall, up 29% over the same period last year.Room-night growth has come with a trade-off in rising advertising costs eating into gross profit as a part of a modest, long-term trend. Yet Priceline Group believes it has managed the trade-off better than its competition, such as by also driving share-gaining organic growth.Priceline Group pushes for more "direct" businessThe company is trying to figure out whether paying for traffic or trying to get more "direct" business -- consumers seeking out its brands to do their purchases -- is the most cost-effective.It continues to spend heavily on paid channels, such as Google advertising, and also on direct channels, such as spending on TV advertising, by driving app downloads and usage, and by encouraging more customers to make repeat purchases.One direct strategy is Booking.com's "Genius" offering — special discounts, often of 10% off — that give hotels access to the site's most loyal customers. The lower rate results in a lower commission for Booking.com, but it is the hotel itself that otherwise bears the brunt of the discount.Executives say that consumers have been strongly embracing the offer, but they didn't give specifics.Overall, Priceline Group is seeing a "barbelling" in the typical booking window. If you look at a chart of when it is that consumers make their bookings, there is a clump around the last-minute and there is a clump fairly advanced out from day of arrival. This trend of extremes is continuing, executive said.Separately, executives commented that the Booking for Business initiative is "off to a good start", with a mix of business travelers using it to book travel and a mix of businesses signing up for enterprise services. But no details of on volume were shared.Turning to other the Airbnb fight, Priceline Group is aiming to expand its vacation rental sales. Historically it has mainly sourced property from large property managers. Now it is trying to make it easier for individuals to list their houses and apartments on its websites.Elsewhere, there was no light shed on Booking.com's effort to expand into services for hotels via BookingSuite.Priceline says it is still experimenting with Facebook advertising that has been "relatively small, but growing nicely and a relatively reasonable ROI."In other news, Priceline.com's current interim chief executive, Brett Keller, has gotten the job for real.Lastly, in 2022, Booking.com hopes to move into a gigantic new headquarters in Amsterdam. Perhaps in 2022 hedge fund managers will still be as keen on Priceline Group stock at they are today.