Whether a hotel, a B&B or just a couch awaits them, Berkshire visitors flow into town

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Posted: Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 1:52 am, Tue May 20, 2014.

Some Berkshire Hathaway shareholders visiting Omaha this week are paying top hotel prices, but New Zealander Lucas Remmerswaal got a housing deal: free.

Jay and Suzanne Robinson accepted his couchsurfing.com request and put him up in their spare room in the Benson area. A second Berkshire-related guest will arrive later today, shifting Remmerswaal to, of course, the couch.

“I don't mind at all,” he said. “It's fun.”

He and other out-of-town Berkers are arriving well ahead of the Saturday meeting, and Omaha's hospitality industry is geared up, from more parking for private jets at Eppley Airfield to hotel rooms with boxes of candy by See's, a Berkshire-owned company.

One-third to one-half of the 30,000 or so people expected at the meeting are from out of town, and not all of them have to search for bargains.

Berkshire weekend is the busiest of the year for private and corporate aircraft at Omaha's Eppley Airfield, with more than 150 jets expected to park overnight, some from as far away as Africa and Australia. Normal overnight parking sees 15 to 20 jets, said Joe Rotterdam, assistant manager of airline affairs for the Omaha Airport Authority.

Most jets arrive Friday and park on the east side of the airport. An additional 60 or so land, deposit passengers and take off.

Berkshire Hathaway events in Omaha

SATURDAY

7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Berkshire Hathaway/Brooks 5K packet pickup at Hilton Omaha; in-person registration accepted.

9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Annual shareholders meeting. (Doors open at 7 a.m., movie at 8:30 a.m., followed by the Q&A at 9:30 a.m. Booths representing more than 40 companies open in the Exhibition Hall throughout.)

Noon to 4:30 p.m.: NetJets display of aircraft at Signature Flight Support next to Eppley Airfield. Stop by the NetJets booth for shuttle information.

5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.: Berkshire's Big League Picnic for shareholders at Nebraska Furniture Mart, 700 S. 72nd St. Live entertainment from DJ's Dugout's Blazin' Pianos with food from Famous Dave's, Domino's, Sonic or Paradise Bakery & Cafe.

SUNDAY

8 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Berkshire Hathaway "Invest in Yourself" 5K presented by Brooks. The course starts on 10th Street across from the CenturyLink Center Omaha and ends on Riverfront Drive. In-person registration accepted.

9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Borsheims shopping day for shareholders. Brunch begins at 9 a.m.

1 p.m. to 10 p.m.: Private shareholder event at Gorat's Steakhouse, 4917 Center St. Reservations required.

4 p.m. to 10 p.m.: Private shareholder event at Piccolo's Steakhouse, 2202 S. 20th St. Reservations required.

MONDAY

Last day of Nebraska Furniture Mart special shareholder pricing.

MAY 10

Last day of Borsheims special shareholder pricing. Credentialed shareholders also can receive up to 20 percent off at the new Borsheims Boutique at Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna.

***

Check Omaha.com/Berkshire this weekend for complete coverage, including live updates from the shareholders meeting Saturday and a 5 p.m. chat with World-Herald staff writer Steve Jordon.

Mike Wilwerding, general manager of fixed-base operator TAC Air, recalls having a fascinating conversation a few years back with musician Jimmy Buffett, later seen at the Berkshire meeting.

That was extraordinary, Wilwerding said. “Usually they don't hang out here very long. Most are in a hurry to get to the activities, so we just see them for a few minutes and away they go.”

The flight crews usually call or email ahead to arrange for rental cars, hotels and aircraft parking. No reservation is necessary to park a private plane, Wilwerding said, and the airport staff helps find a spot for the overflow.

Rotterdam said traditional airlines added 16 incoming and outgoing flights resulting in 2,294 additional seats to accommodate Berkshire guests. A few airlines also switched to larger planes, adding 1,092 more seats.

But shareholders David and Mary Kane are driving today from Galena, Ill., to Omaha in their 2000 Winnebago Rialta, a 22-foot camper van that he said “looks like a little Dumbo.” They've been making the trip to the annual meeting for about 10 years.

A daughter and son-in-law will attend their first meeting and also will stay at the West Omaha KOA campground near Gretna. Because the Kanes' camper is small, they'll just unplug it and drive to downtown Omaha for the meeting or when they go out to dinner.

The Kanes are used to finding a way around Omaha hotel rates that rise during Berkshire weekend. Warren Buffett earlier this year complained that his shareholders might be seeing unfair charges. But hoteliers say they're treating the shareholders the same as, say, visitors to the College World Series, and they're providing extras to make shareholders feel welcome.

Kane, a retired steel mill consultant, said he doesn't object to prices in Omaha rising during Berkshire week, noting that hotels in Indianapolis raise rates during the Indy 500 race, too. “They've got to get their money when they can.”

KOA franchise holders Eric and Carroll Murray will rent about 10 campsites to meeting attendees, some of whom return each year.

“A lot of them have small camper vans, and I've seen some tents. A couple of them will be using the cabins,” Eric Murray said.

Because the camp isn't full, he's charging regular rates during the Berkshire weekend — $20 for a tent site, about $45 for a motor home hookup and $95 for the fanciest cabin. The hookups have water, electricity, sewer, cable TV and Wi-Fi.

During the College World Series the campground is full and prices go up — $35 for a tent site, $45 to $80 for a camper hookup, $172 for a cabin.

To help visitors find reasonable room rates, Buffett recommended Airbnb.com, a website that connects travelers with a network of hosts. One of them is Juli-Ann Gasper, an artist who works from home near Boys Town and is hosting two brothers from Germany for four days.

For $100 a night, the men get two bedrooms, each with a queen-size bed, and the use of a parking spot in the driveway.

Gasper said she leases spare bedrooms about once a month through Airbnb. During low-demand months, she charges $68 a night.

A spokeswoman for Airbnb said the list of Omaha hosts more than doubled after Buffett's recommendation and a subsequent informational meeting in Omaha that drew about 200 people. Earlier this week, some were still available at prices ranging from $73 for a spare bedroom to $560 a night at a midtown house down the street from Buffett's.

Just west of downtown, in Omaha's historic Gold Coast District, the Cornerstone Mansion bed and breakfast is fully booked with repeat guests who reserved rooms last year. The old mansion's seven uniquely decorated suites — including one named after the Offutt family that built the home — go for $125 to $225 a night, depending on the room.

One visitor from Japan is celebrating his birthday, so co-owner Julie Mierau will bake him a cake. Two other guests are from different parts of Canada, while others fly in or drive from states including New Hampshire and Missouri.

Even the mayor of Bennington has a slice of the Berkshire frenzy.

Mayor Gordon Mueller and his wife, Linda, own Oft's Bed and Breakfast, which also is the couple's full-time home. (He's the fourth generation living in the 1910 Queen Anne historic home once owned by his great-grandparents, Eggert and Rosa Oft.)

Guests staying the weekend in their two suites arrive Friday. Reservations were booked months ago at the same price he charges regardless of the season: $100 a night for one room; $110 for the other. The guests are coming from Indiana.

“And they get a real good breakfast with that,” Mueller said. “The mayor cooks breakfast.”

The Muellers are “semiretired” and said they love the conversation with company about topics from all over the globe. “It's better than reading the paper,” Mueller said.

Some downtown hotels are welcoming their first Berkshire guests, and they're doing it up sweet.

The 150-room Residence Inn by Marriott, which opened in October, will be full, and guests will find the See's Candies nestled in a hotel-made gift box accompanied by a welcome note. A display in the lobby offers helpful tips such as where to find the nearest Dairy Queen Dilly Bar and how to hail a cab in Omaha.

“We're very excited to be part of downtown here and to be able to help with this,” General Manager Kyle Highberg said.

Downtown's Hotel Deco XV, in preparation for a full house for Berkshire weekend, sent the hotel staff through a refresher of “extraordinary experiences” service training, said Katy Adams, vice president of sales and marketing.

Books about Warren Buffett, his hometown and his company have been placed in luxury suites. Special orchids have been shipped in for “over-the-top” floral arrangements.

And, General Manager Tony Nabhan said, a “high-end” breakfast will be served for investors earlier than usual, at 5 a.m., so they can get to the business that brought them: the Berkshire meeting.

“Hopefully we all work together so they keep coming every year,” Nabhan said.

Jay Robinson, the couch-surfing host, said he hopes to build a reputation among travelers, too, but on a smaller scale.

“We plan on doing some traveling, so it would be nice if we knew somebody who would know their way around, the things to do,” the Omaha Public Power District retiree said. “If we would like to have that done for us, we should probably do it on our end.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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