If you ever wanted to run a bed-and-breakfast for investors, here’s your chance.
With his 50th business anniversary on the agenda of the May 2 Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders meeting, Warren Buffett expects a record crowd — “well over 40,000 people” — in Omaha.
Out-of-town attendees will strain the city’s 14,000 hotel rooms, so Buffett wants Omahans to open up at least 1,000 rooms by signing up with Airbnb, an Internet-connected network of houses, apartments, condos and even treehouses and castles.
“I think we’re going to be up pretty significantly over last year,” Buffett told The World-Herald Wednesday. He said an estimated 39,000 people attended last year’s meeting at the CenturyLink Center, and “we pretty much filled up all the available hotel spaces.”
“Airbnb is going to put a special effort into developing listings in Omaha.”
He plans to write about the Airbnb campaign in his annual letter to shareholders, but that’s not published until early March and he doesn’t want shareholders to be turned off by earlier checks with hotels.
“I don’t want them (shareholders) to get discouraged about coming because they’ve checked some hotels and find they’re filled,” Buffett said. “I’d like to get the maximum numbers” at the meeting.
He will be celebrating his 50th year as chairman of Berkshire. Buffett bought the former textile company in 1965 and turned it into his investment company, making thousands of shareholders wealthy and building his personal fortune to about $75 billion, so far.
San Francisco-based Airbnb plans to arrange a signup event in late February and already is networking through social media with its 200 existing Omaha “hosts.”
An Airbnb spokeswoman said the company is working on ways “to help the community understand the benefits of hosting and help facilitate setting them up to welcome visitors for the shareholders meeting.” She said she expects a significant increase in listings over last year but declined to give a specific target.
For some upcoming weekends, Airbnb.com lists about 150 spaces in Omaha. For May 1-3, the busiest Berkshire days, the site showed 53 listings. Rooms that are booked disappear from view on the website.
Prices for the Berkshire weekend ranged from $40 a night for a room in an apartment near Elkhorn to $1,000 a night, with a two-day minimum, for a north downtown loft, walking distance to the shareholders meeting.
This is the second year Buffett has touted Airbnb to his shareholders. Last year he proposed Airbnb locations as an alternative to hotels that charged $400 a night and required three-day minimum stays, saying that shareholders shouldn’t be treated differently than, say, College World Series fans.
But hotel operators said they charge similar rates during the college baseball tournament and other busy times, adhering to the law of supply and demand.
Wednesday, Buffett said he realizes that Airbnb hosts also can raise prices or require multi-day minimums during Berkshire weekend, but their rates are “all over the place” and at least shareholders will have another option.
“If we get 1,000 rooms at $150 a night, that’s more money pumped into Omaha,” Buffett said. “Some people will be able to save substantial money” and have a chance to find rooms that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
From hoteliers’ comments Wednesday, it’s unclear whether bookings are ahead of last year.
Tim Darby, general manager of the downtown Magnolia, said it’s not unusual that his 145-room boutique hotel already is full Friday and Saturday of the Berkshire weekend, but this year Thursday is busier, too, with 68 rooms booked compared to 47 at the same time last year.
“It’s bigger than what we’ve seen, historically,” he said. The Magnolia has the same Friday-Saturday minimum-stay restriction as last year.
The 150-room Residence Inn by Marriott, 106 S. 15th St., is sold out, again, for the Berkshire weekend.
The 600-room downtown Hilton Omaha, is not sold out yet, but General Manager Gordon Humbert anticipates a full house for the Berkshire meeting. “It’s a little early.” The Hilton has no minimum stay, and rates are up slightly this year, he said.
David Scott, director of sales for LaVista’s Embassy Suites and Courtyard by Marriott hotels, said that so far he hasn’t seen more room demand from Berkshire shareholders, possibly because of the hotel’s suburban location. The city also has gained some hotels over the past year, he noted.
The complex has a minimum Friday-Saturday stay during the Berkshire event, and Scott anticipates rates to be about the same as last year.
Mark O’Leary, owner of the Cornerstone Mansion bed-and-breakfast at 140 N. 39th St., said his rooms for the 2015 meeting weekend filled up within a week after last year’s meeting, as usual. He charges $50 more per night because of the demand, with no minimum stay.
He said adding more Airbnb rooms to Omaha’s inventory that weekend won’t affect his business, which has special use permit from the city and commercial insurance, and pays state and city sales taxes and, every month on every room, a lodging tax.
Airbnb hosts, as a rule, “don’t pay any of it. It’s frustrating for us. ... It’s not really a fair market.” On the other hand, he said, Airbnb hosts may face legal problems he doesn’t.
Juli-Ann Gasper, who uses Airbnb to rent two bedrooms with baths at her home near Boys Town, said Airbnb works with some cities to pay lodging taxes or other local fees, but that hasn’t happened in Omaha.
For the Berkshire weekend, she has hosted the same two guests from Germany for the past four years and will host them again this year. “They’re my good friends now,” she said.
She raises her rates from $68 to $100 per night for the Berkshire meeting, the College World Series and the Olympic Swim Trials.
Gasper said her insurance agent told her she is covered by her homeowners policy, but she hasn’t had any problems that led to claims. “We don’t have that litigious atmosphere here in Omaha.”
The Omaha-World Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.