Lauren Hauber has moved past the days of trudging down the hotel corridor with an ice bucket.
Like a growing number of business travelers, Ms. Hauber, a San Francisco resident, and her co-workers have started staying in apartments and houses managed through Airbnb, which in July started a site aimed at attracting more business travelers. The service allows travelers — business and leisure — to rent space for short periods.
Ms. Hauber and two colleagues rented a three-bedroom condominium in downtown Austin, Tex., for this week’s SXSW Eco conference. The apartment was less expensive and more convenient than hotels in the area, she said, and it had other benefits.
“I really like having a kitchen,” said Ms. Hauber, who does business development for Wildlife Works, an environmental firm in Mill Valley, Calif. “A lot of times they’ll have washers and dryers. I don’t feel like I’m losing anything by using an Airbnb.”
Companies large and small, increasingly focused on budgets, are starting to look beyond hotels to apartments and houses.
“We’re seeing really kind of shocking growth in the use of Airbnb by business travelers,” said Tim MacDonald, an executive vice president with Concur, which designs software for managing business expenses and travel. Use of Airbnb properties by companies using the Concur system has surged in the past year, Mr. MacDonald said. San Francisco, New York and Austin, as well as Paris and London, have been particularly popular destinations for business travelers opting for Airbnb, he said.
The service has been embraced especially in San Francisco, where hotel occupancy rates hover around 90 percent, said Joe D’Alessandro, president and chief executive of the San Francisco Travel Association.
During technology conferences like Oracle OpenWorld and Macworld, “the city’s basically in sellout mode,” Mr. D’Alessandro said. Before Airbnb, he added, “there were times when the city was full and people just couldn’t get in.”
The trend is part of a growing reliance on the so-called sharing economy, which also includes companies like the Uber car service and TaskRabbit, where clients can find people to help with everyday chores and other tasks.
Although Airbnb declined to give the number of business travelers using the service, at least 55 companies are using the site to plan business trips, said Lex Bayer, who heads Airbnb’s business development. The site’s new business portal mostly excludes shared apartments and quirkier properties, like boats and tree houses, in favor of entire houses or apartments, Mr. Bayer said.
The service has proved popular with property owners, he said, especially since business travel helps fill vacant sites during the week. “Typically business travelers are good travelers,” he said. “Hosts enjoy having them.”
Among the hosts who have benefited is Steve Puryear, who said up to two-thirds of the guests in his Austin condominium — including Ms. Hauber and her colleagues — were business travelers. The headline on his Airbnb listing makes his preference clear: “Perfect 4 Executives/Professionals.”
“I was getting a lot of bachelor parties and stuff,” he said. “I wanted to steer toward business travelers. There are long-term residents in the building and noise complaints are expensive.”
Airbnb’s primary competitor, HomeAway, has not focused on business travel and has no plans to do so, said Jon Gray, its senior vice president for the Americas. Business trips account for 2 percent of the company’s bookings, he said.
HomeAway, which runs VRBO and VacationRentals.com, among other sites, is looking at a new site focusing on homes in urban areas, however, Mr. Gray said. Increased business travel may “come along for the ride,” he said.
Increased competition from Airbnb and others will force hotels to find ways to bring back business travelers, said Michael W. McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer of the Global Business Travel Association. For now, he said, it is no wonder that companies are using the new service.
“Travelers and companies are always looking for creative options,” Mr. McCormick said. “From that perspective, everybody’s intrigued.”
Like Uber, which has run afoul of taxi operators and transit regulators around the world, Airbnb has battled hotel owners and officials in cities from San Francisco to New York, as well as in Europe, as governments try to figure out how to tax and regulate the sharing economy.
But businesses have started to embrace Airbnb in the meantime. The service has come in handy for GitHub, a San Francisco-based software start-up with about 150 employees who work outside the Bay Area. Without Airbnb, many of those employees would have trouble finding hotel rooms during conferences, said Brian Doll, a GitHub vice president.
“All the hotels are pretty much booked,” he said. “Anything that’s left is going to be six times the market rate.”
Airbnb properties, which often include common areas like family or dining rooms, also give employees more working space than a hotel room, Mr. Doll said. “We might have four to six people traveling to a location to do work together,” he said. “Hotel rooms aren’t well suited for that.”
The business travel market is still big enough for both hotels and Airbnb, said Mr. McCormick of the Global Business Travel Association. Many travelers will opt for the convenience of room service over the freedom of a kitchen, he said.
“Yes, they are all competing,” he said. “But I think Airbnb is bringing something different to a different segment of the marketplace.”
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