Warren Buffett is tapping an online bed-and-breakfast network in hopes of helping his shareholders save money when they come to Omaha.
For this year's shareholder meeting on May 3, the 45 rooms, apartments and houses listed in the Omaha area on Airbnb.com are filling up.
And some of the Omaha hosts are charging rates as high or higher than the hotel prices that prompted Buffett to wonder whether his shareholders are being treated fairly.
The website's recruiters are looking for more hosts to take in the out-of-towners who make up a good share of the 30,000 people due at the meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the conglomerate headed by Buffett.
Megan Hunt of Omaha, a host for Airbnb (pronounced “AIR-bee-n-bee”), is aware of Buffett's cost concerns, but she's holding out for someone who will pay $450 a night to stay at least five nights at her two-bedroom apartment near the CenturyLink Center, the meeting site.
“He's a businessman, and so am I,” Hunt said Wednesday. “I'm trying to make ends meet.”
Another Airbnb host advertised $550 a night for a downtown Omaha location.
The rates might still be a bargain, since some Airbnb places sleep four or more people who might otherwise rent multiple hotel rooms. Some have kitchens and other amenities.
This year, Airbnb might have only a slight impact. The meeting is only 23 days away, and Airbnb just started active host-recruiting in Omaha this week. But next year, visitors and hosts will have more time to connect.
Rates of $400 or more and minimum stays required by some downtown hotels triggered Buffett's earlier comments about hotel rates to The World-Herald. He said his shareholders shouldn't have to pay more than fans who attend the College World Series in Omaha in June, also a busy time for hotels.
Hotel managers responded that supply and demand dictate prices and that they charge about the same for baseball fans and shareholders. They pointed out that their rooms were selling out.
The city has cheaper hotels and motels as well, mostly outside the downtown area. Mike Patel, owner of the Relax Inn at 60th and L Streets, said many of them, including his, are booked up. But Countryside Suites at Interstate 80 and Nebraska Highway 50 said Wednesday that it still had rooms for $130 a night, no minimum, on the Berkshire meeting weekend.
Soon after The World-Herald wrote about his concern, Buffett's office contacted Airbnb, which is based in San Francisco. He plans to mention Airbnb during this year's meeting, with hopes that future lodging alternatives will include more Airbnb rooms.
In response to Buffett's appeal, Airbnb is working to increase the supply of rooms available in Omaha this year, but especially for 2015 and beyond, said spokeswoman Marissa Coughlin.
Many new hosts are people who have stayed in Airbnb rooms elsewhere, she said.
One of those is Hunt, who found a renter at $450 a night for the Dundee-area apartment where she lives. If she's in town, she'll sleep at her office, where she's a partner in an online boutique, Hello Holiday.
Her downtown apartment, used exclusively for Airbnb, usually rents for $50 for one bedroom and $120 for the whole apartment.
“You're not going to find a better location. I don't give people a break,” Hunt said, because of the high demand. “An Airbnb with full privacy is more valuable than a hotel room.”
Some prospective guests have tried talking down the price, but she won't negotiate. “I'm just charging what it's worth,” she said. Both places are already booked at the same rates for the College World Series.
Her Airbnb rent is an important sideline.
“I'm living off the income,” she said. “I've had some weirdos, maybe 1 percent of the visitors are a problem. But it's fine, it's great. There's a lot of verification. You can trust people that are staying with you. I've never felt unsafe at all.”
Airbnb uses two-way reviews, letting guests comment on their accommodations and hosts comment on the guests. Both post profiles, giving basic information that each side can check out before booking. Hosts have protection against certain types of theft, Coughlin said. Potential hosts can sign up and submit photos online, or Airbnb arranges for photographers to take photos of the accommodations.
Airbnb has a suggested rate calculator, but hosts set the rates. Airbnb receives a percentage of between 6 percent and 12 percent from the guest, depending on the amount of the bill, and 3 percent from the host for processing.
Normal rents vary widely. One Omaha location lists $30 a night, but the rate for the Berkshire weekend doesn't show because it's already booked.
Coughlin said recruiters will be “talking with people in Omaha about what we do and how we can help people open up their homes,” with a goal of creating spaces for thousands of visitors.
“They can experience a city the way a local would, in a more authentic way. People sort of fall in love with that way of traveling.”
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.