When the stars of a legendary show are ages 88 and 95, it seems that nothing short of seeing the spectacle in person will do.
This marks the fourth year for Internet livestreaming of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, dubbed fondly by many as the Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger show.
Still, all signs point to a full house at this coming weekend’s activities, or at least the same crowd size as last year.
More than 42,000 people are estimated to have been part of the 2018 extravaganza.
The number of credentials sent out globally this year roughly matches that of last year, according to the Berkshire Hathaway Omaha headquarters. Attendance fell off some the initial year of the webcast, a spokeswoman said, but has since rebounded.
Omahans can expect the Berkie brigade to start arriving at area hotels as soon as Thursday and they’ll be spotted around Omaha through Sunday for what tourism officials say is the area’s biggest convention. It starts Friday at noon with Berkshire-related shopping at the CHI Health Center exhibit hall. Credentialed shareholders are privy to rituals involving such things as Dilly Bars, diamonds and souvenirs or a T-bone and double-hash browns dinner.
The much-anticipated headliner, of course, is Saturday’s six hours of Q&A and official meeting led by Chairman and Chief Executive Buffett, 88, and Vice Chairman Munger, 95.
Friends for 60 years, the duo’s quick-witted remarks and dispensing of financial pearls is what followers don’t want to miss.
Gene Dunn, owner of Gorat’s Steakhouse, where shareholders flock to eat because they know it’s a Buffett favorite, said he wasn’t surprised that reservations filled up faster this year than any other that he remembers.
“There’s not going to be a lot of these meetings left,” Dunn said, referring to those headed by the conglomerate’s longtime leaders.
Up to 2,900 meals will be served, he said, over the long weekend that traditionally culminates with Buffett dining at Gorat’s on Sunday. Big seller of the day: a 22-ounce T-bone and hash browns, Buffett’s personal favorites.
Steve Hilton, president of the Metropolitan Hospitality Association, is among locals who anticipate robust activity at least consistent with last year.
Hilton said hotels, especially downtown, will be hopping. He said the full-service Capitol District Marriott, which he manages, was pretty much sold out six months ago.
“There is nothing like being present at a convention,” Hilton said. “People come for the experience, they want to be surrounded by Warren Buffett, his talent, his company.”
The event still is in such demand that area hotels are able to charge higher rates during the convention, Magnolia General Manager Tim Darby and others say.
Omaha’s airport is expecting a higher volume of traffic this Berkshire weekend compared with last. Steve McCoy, director of air service and business development for the Airport Authority, said the number of available airplane seats Thursday through Monday is up 12 percent compared with a similar stretch last year, and the number of flights going in and out of Omaha is up nearly 8 percent.
With a total of 103,219 seats coming and going, McCoy said 2019 appears to be a record-setter at Eppley Airfield for the Berkshire weekend. McCoy said he can’t say for certain that the additional seats and planes are filled by shareholders, but at least one major airline said the Berkshire gathering was a main driver of its extra weekend capacity.
Morgan Durrant of Delta said the airline added more than 6,000 seats during the annual pilgrimage, and nonstop service to Los Angeles especially for the meeting. That’s 14 percent more seats than last year, he said.
Some celebrities, international guests and other jet-setters swoop into Omaha on private and corporate aircraft. Eppley’s two fixed-base operators expect to arrange overnight parking and other services for more than 100 private aircraft while their passengers attend Berkshire festivities, said Mike Wilwerding, general manager of TAC Air.
“We’re using all available concrete to park aircraft on that weekend,” Wilwerding said. “It can be pretty hectic. At this point, we’re seeing patterns similar to what we’ve seen in the last several years.”
As the “Woodstock of Capitalism” approaches, area businesses that cater and profit from it are gearing up.
Nebraska Furniture Mart, for example, is preparing to present, at discount rates, a group of new products to shareholders at the Omaha store as well as the CHI hall. There’s a refrigerator disguised as a nightstand, a big-screen TV with new technology and vintage arcade games including Pac-Man.
The Mart is among the dozens of Berkshire-owned companies — ranging from Fruit of the Loom to local fine jeweler Borsheims — set to display their wares.
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The Even Hotel near 24th and Farnam Streets is dusting off the oversized cutout of Warren Buffett’s head that creates some fun and excitement as it makes its way around the hotel during the weekend. Staff and guests make a sort of game out of shifting the image to different spots throughout the property.
It’s sort of “Elf on the Shelf meets Where’s Waldo,” said Assistant General Manager Keli Alabi. He anticipates full occupancy Friday and Saturday at the Even.
The downtown Hotel Deco, which has been sold out Friday and Saturday for about three months, will be greeting travelers with a special nonalcoholic drink from the local Grove Juicery that’s formulated to “refresh and recharge.”
Also booked up, said Deco General Manager Zak Cook-Isaacson, are most peak-time restaurant tables and all of the meeting rooms where companies host side gatherings for clients and investors. He attributes the pace to a brisk economy and an aging Warren Buffett.
“Everybody wants to make sure they don’t miss out on an opportunity to see and hear him.”
The downtown Magnolia staff this past weekend held the hotel’s traditional spring spruce-up and flower-planting to be fresh for the Berkshire rush.
The downtown DoubleTree by Hilton was preparing its surprise treats for incoming shareholders: candies from a local chocolatier and champagne.
General managers of both hotels said their rooms were completely booked months ago for Berkshire.
Additional hotel rooms are in the pipeline for the Omaha area, but the count currently hasn’t tipped to the point of reducing rates on the busy Berkshire weekend, Darby said.
About 426 hotel rooms were constructed in the Omaha area since the last Berkshire gathering, about a 3 percent increase, for a total now of nearly 15,700, according to travel research firm STR Inc., which monitors the market for the local convention and visitors bureau. The number of rooms under construction or planned would add another 850 over the next few years.
Anne Branigan of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce attributes the steady shareholder flow to Omaha despite the availability of a webcast to a healthy national economy and shared optimism.
“There’s also the momentum of the meeting itself — with word spreading every year to a wider audience about how unique, compelling and exciting shareholder week is,” Branigan said.
Keith Backsen, head of the local Convention and Visitors Bureau, also called Visit Omaha, said out-of-towners are drawn by the chance to see “Charlie and Warren onstage” — but that’s not all.
“There are an awful lot of individual business meetings that happen during that time,” he said. Visits to local businesses also are set up, he said, noting, for example, Chinese contingents that plan tours of agricultural-related plants coinciding with the Berkshire event.
Kids come. Families come. So do some rich and famous, like-minded and wanna-be investors, even protesters.
Thousands of shareholders line up in the predawn hours outside the CHI center to try to grab a front-row seat for Saturday’s official business meeting where Buffett and Munger take questions from shareholders.
The CHI arena can seat 18,000, and an additional 12,000 seats are available in meeting rooms and ballrooms or at the Hilton Omaha across the street with audio and video hookups.
From all he’s heard, Backsen said, he expects as many fans this year as last.
“People crave interaction with other people,” he said.