* Talks about selling stake in AccorInvest in final stages
* To adjust dividend policy after AccorInvest deal
* 2017 EBIT 492 mln euros vs forecast 481 mln euros
* Brazil still difficult, but trends improved in Q4 (Adds comments from Accor executives and analyst)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, Feb 21 (Reuters) - AccorHotels’ long-delayed sale of a stake in its property business is in its final stages, Europe’s largest hotel company said on Wednesday, after reporting record 2017 earnings.
The French group, with more than 4,000 hotels ranging from luxury Sofitels to the budget Ibis brand, also expressed confidence over prospects for this year and over potential returns to investors once the property deal is sealed.
There was initial disappointment over the absence of any concrete developments on the plans for outside investment in property unit AccorInvest - known as “Booster” by the company - as well as the lack of increase in the annual dividend.
But the shares recovered early losses to trade up 2.6 percent at 1055 GMT, as analysts welcomed the prospect of better returns for investors. The stock is up about 8 percent in 2018.
AccorHotels has said the stake sale, now delayed by more than six months, will give it greater financial leeway to accelerate growth and fight the rising challenges from companies such as Airbnb and online travel agents.
Chief Executive Sebastien Bazin said it was “a matter of weeks” before a deal was sealed, while finance chief Jean-Jacques Morin said the group would adjust its dividend policy after the sale and hinted at a possible special dividend.
“Overall, an upbeat message with confidence around deal execution, RevPar (revenues per available room) and encouraging comments regarding the future cash return potential,” wrote Barclays analysts, who have an “overweight” rating on the stock.
AccorHotels, which competes with InterContinental, Marriott and Starwood, beat forecasts with a 10 percent rise in like-for-like operating profit to 492 million euros ($606 million) for 2017.
InterContinental, which focuses on business customers, also reported higher profits this week and unveiled plans to expand further in the upmarket part of the hotel industry.
AccorHotels has struck deals in areas such as concierge services and luxury rentals to try to combat competition from the likes of Airbnb and Expedia.
Bazin reiterated on a call to analysts and reporters that strong growth was expected from these new lines of business over the medium term.
The only region where AccorHotels did not have strong growth last year was South America and in particular Brazil, which is slowly emerging from a recession, although the company said trends in Brazil improved in the fourth quarter.
Bazin, who took over in August 2013, has been cutting costs and expanding in China and the luxury hotels market, with AccorHotels having bought FRHI Holdings, the owner of London’s Savoy and New York’s Plaza hotels.
In October, AccorHotels also clinched a deal to buy Mantra Group Ltd for A$1.18 billion ($926 million) to create the biggest hotel group in Australia. Bazin said he expected to finalise the deal during the second quarter of 2018.
Kingdom Holding, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s investment company, has a 5.71 percent stake in AccorHotels. The prince was released last month from detention following an anti-corruption crackdown.
Asked if there had been any signs of a possible change in the prince’s shareholding, Bazin said: “We have been comforted on the fact that there was no change in governance, shareholding. Prince Alwaleeed is and remains the third-largest shareholder of this group.”
($1 = 0.8118 euros)
$1 = 1.2737 Australian dollars Additional reporting by Blandine Henault; Editing by Keith Weir and Mark Potter