If you’re a practicing journalist for very long in Omaha there are some local stories that will inevitably cross your professional path at one juncture or another. For years I had known about and experienced some of the fallout from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting that literally brings thousands of folks from around the world to town for face or proximity time with the Oracle of Omaha, billionaire investor and Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett. Until an Omaha Magazine assignment a few years ago I had never written about the event and while the gig didn’t call for me to actually cover the proceedings but instead to preview them I can at least say I’ve crossed off yet another Omaha tradition from my story bucket list.
Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Tuns Omaha into Buffettville Destination
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s once modest annual shareholders meeting has morphed into what one pundit called “Woodstock for Capitalists.”
Thanks to chairman Warren Buffett’s “Oracle” status, the weekend event’s now a branded experience. Sure, Buffett and partner Charlie Munger’s witty Q & A is popular, but there’s also exhibits by subsidiaries, entertainment, parties, concerts, tours and immersion in-all-things-Omaha. People drop big bucks on buying-junkets at Berkshire-held Borsheims and Nebraska Furniture Mart, which reportedly did $30 million in sales for last year’s spree. Gorat’s and Dairy Queen do well.
Economic crisis or not, thousands will once again venture here from across the nation and globe for the May 1-3 bash. The Saturday May 2 meeting is when Qwest Center Omaha overbrims with activity. Annual meeting director Kelly Muchemore-Broz said she’s seen the event take on “a life of its own.” “The first meeting I attended there were 200 shareholders. When I started helping with the meeting, there were a couple thousand. Back then we were able to pass microphones to the shareholders to ask their questions. Last year we had 32,000.”
The scale, said Qwest Center director of event operations Stan Benis, “is probably the largest we handle from start to finish. People come early and stay late. The event is certainly in a class of its own. The closest would probably be the American Idol tryouts, but even that didn’t take the entire convention center floor space.”
So, what goes into making it all happen?
Months in advance Muchemore-Broz begins working with a core team to plan every element of the all-day event. The devil’s in the details. That includes a theme. This year’s is cowboys. “I try to select themes that are whimsical, colorful and offer a large canvas of creative possibilities,” she said. Designers lead crews that dress the facility — this time in a Western motif. Only the arena’s left untouched. “It’s all business in there,” she said, referring to the venue where the company movie, Q & A and business meeting unfold. Everything else is fair game.
A live reenactment of a stagecoach hold-up will break out right in front of the Qwest on 10th Street. A Wild West show, minus shootouts, is on display inside.
“Every year it’s amazing to see an empty exhibit hall become completely transformed,” said team leader D’Ann Lonowski of Mint Design. “It is an elaborate setup that usually contains a large, central focal point in the exhibit hall. From there we branch out with scenery and signage.”
Muchemore-Broz said the most time-intensive work is “finalizing meeting details — designing, writing, printing, organizing, communicating and delivering meeting materials to both shareholders and attending exhibitors.” The most labor-intensive? “Stuffing envelopes,” she said.
All of it, the landscaping, centerpieces, booth displays and graphics, right down to passes and visitor guides, Lonowski said, must work together to “create a cohesive environment” and to “bring the theme to life.”
Then there’s the buzz. Think of Buffett as the iconic front man for a hot band whose star power gets shareholders to queue up hours before the meeting starts. “I believe the record was one o’clock the morning of the meeting. However, last year there was a gentlemen who arrived at 11 the night before,” said Muchemore-Broz. In terms of preparations, Benis said, “we treat it just like a rock show. The crowds are lined up outside and pass through a security checkpoint.” Once inside, he said, it’s a race of people “in suits-and-ties trying to get a front row seat.”
With attendance now at sold-out, stadium-concert proportions, demand on area service sectors, such as lodging, is great.
“The downtown hotels do sell out the summer before,” said Muchemore-Broz, “but room availability changes constantly –- right up to the weekend of the meeting. So it doesn’t mean you can’t get a room in Omaha.” However, she added, “If you wait until spring to get a room, it’s possible you could be as far away as Lincoln.”
Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director Dana Markel said its Visitor Center at 1001 Farnam Center sees double its highest traffic that weekend. “It’s just a spectacular event for Omaha and really nothing compares,” she said. “People come in from all over the world.”
The day of the meeting, Benis said, “parking is always a challenge but people seem to find spaces. A lot of attendees take the hotel shuttles or walk over.” As the arena can’t hold everyone, teleconferencing beams the meeting into the exhibit hall, the ballrooms and the concourses, where the overflow crowd mingles.
Accommodating all those visitors requires much coordination. Muchemore-Broz said countless people support the meeting and satellite events/activities. “My team members have their own staffs. Everyone at Berkshire works the meeting — including employees at a couple of our local insurance companies. There’s Qwest personnel, Omaha Police Department, Nebraska and Iowa State Patrol, Douglas and Sarpy County deputies. Many local residents volunteer to help. And, of course, the local restaurants, hotels, taxi companies, the airport –- the list goes on and on.”
At the Qwest, Benis said, “our event staff, including cleaners, is around 300 on the day of the meeting. Levy, our concessionaire, will have around 250 on site. Keeping the arena and convention center clean is always a challenge, but this event again is so different because of the length of time visitors are in the building.”
Muchemore-Broz said putting on the event is “a very exhilarating and fun grind. I’m thrilled when it’s over and everyone has had a terrific weekend but it’s sad too. It’s a big emotional let down when the lights go out. Every year is a lesson in growth and fine tuning.”
- Berkshire Hathaway’s Operating Profit Grows 37%, Net Income Beats Street Expectations (seekingalpha.com)
- Warren Buffett says Berkshire Hathaway may buy more newspapers (nextlevelofnews.com)