Annual shareholder meetings give investors rare access to company executives, a chance to voice concerns, and insight into companies that can't be found in annual reports or earnings calls. Mostly, they're yawn-inducing. But these rare few are a blast.
The Buffett lovefest
The granddaddy of them all is the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) annual meeting in Omaha. This Warren Buffett lovefest is the investing event of the year.
Buffett himself mans Berkshire subsidiary booths -- in 2012, at jeweler Borsheims' booth, he advised customers to ask for the "Crazy Warren price." Buffett has written," Anyone who says money can't buy happiness simply hasn't shopped at our meeting."
Besides shopping for See's Candies and Justin Boots, there's the newspaper-tossing challenge, a 5K run to celebrate Berkshire's Brooks running shoes, and the highly anticipated Q&A session with Buffett and Charlie Munger. Buffett says if you must exit during the Q&A, do so "while Charlie's talking." Chess and bridge champions take on all comers. Buffett dines at Piccolo's and Gorat's Steakhouse, and reservations months in advance are mandatory.
Buffett puts the "fun" in fundamentals, but serious shareholders can take in journalist and insurance-industry analyst panels. To spice things up, Buffett always invites a certified bear.
Tens of thousands attend this meeting -- so many that airlines usually jack up prices for weekend tickets to Omaha (fly to Kansas City instead and drive the rest, advises Buffett). Highlight events are so spread throughout Omaha that you need a car.
You have to be a Berkshire shareholder to attend (as with all shareholder meetings). The Berkshire B shares currently trade around $115, having appreciated about 46% since 2009. The conglomerate is widely diversified, with 55-plus subsidiaries and a portfolio of investments worth almost $89 billion as of June 30. That's widely regarded as a value investor's dream..
Theater with coffee
Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX ) holds an annual shareholder meeting described as "theater with coffee." Naturally, Starbucks coffee is available, and attendees usually get some swag.
Theater manifests itself in shareholder exchanges with CEO Howard Schultz. This year a shareholder asked whether the company should publicly support gay marriage. Schultz responded that the decision was made not with economics in mind, but "through the lens of our people," suggesting that the questioner could sell his shares -- if he were unsatisfied with their 38% one-year return.
The 2013 meeting featured Nancy Koehn, an authority on Lincoln, speaking on Starbucks' leadership and Lincoln. Musical star John Legend performed in 2013. Thousands attend. Get there early.
The company now has 19,000 locations worldwide and offers a yield of 1.1%.
Best for star power
The Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) meeting in Bentonville, Ark., is famed for stars. Did you miss John Legend at Starbucks' meeting in March? Then perhaps you caught him at Wal-Mart's in June. This year Hugh Jackman, Elton John, Tom Cruise, Luke Bryan, Kelly Clarkson, Lee Brice, and Jennifer Hudson delighted 14,000 shareholders and store associates.
Wal-Mart's meeting usually generates controversy. This year the Bangladesh factory tragedy and worker rights interrupted what Forbes called "the dog and pony show." If seeing executives squirm entertains you, then Wal-Mart's meeting is a can't-miss.
Overall, it's "rah-rah, Wal-Mart." But for one share and a Bentonville motel room, investors have seen Aerosmith, Taylor Swift, the Black Eyed Peas, and a pre-twerking Miley Cyrus.
Meetings for gamers and the outdoorsy
What Cabela's (NYSE: CAB ) annual meeting lacks in star power it makes up for with heart. The outdoor outfitter's annual meeting features fudge, kettle corn, and Cabela's swag. Expect to see taxidermy exhibits and hear country music. This year featured record earnings boasts and, with proxies adopted right at the top, less of the "boring" stuff to endure.
Cabela's stock has risen 566% in the last five years, and the company is a destination retailer that's rapidly expanding across the U.S. and Canada.
Geeks have no reason to feel left out, as the Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: EA ) annual meeting is a veritable gamer's paradise. Electronic Arts, as owner of several dominant game franchises including the Sims, Battlefield, and Madden NFL, lets attendees play classic arcade games, the company's newest releases, and more. In the past, attendees have been gifted with free games. Snacks and the company's cafeteria are top-rated.
Electronic Arts shares trade at a forward multiple of 16.8 and are up 93% in the last year, currently trading at about $25 apiece. If nothing else, it's not a bad price for a good gaming time!
The Foolish takeaway
All five meetings are worth the price of a share. The opportunity to get up close and personal with executives and ask pertinent questions is a compelling reason to attend any shareholder meeting -- but why not have fun, too? If you can't make it, webcasts or transcripts are available on most company investor sites. If you know of any fun meetings I missed, let all of us Fools know in the comments.
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