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Checking in? Why Airbnb might be your next business hotel

If you've only thought of Airbnb as a vacation rental, think again. The company is trying to expand its image one business traveler at a time.

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Mark Mann

There was cold beer in the fridge, a city guide book in the living room and plenty of towels. I dropped my bags, rummaged in the drawer for a bottle opener, and took a deep, thirsty swig. Yep. As a crashpad and workplace, this Airbnb rental would do jussst fiiine.

I shouldn't be surprised. A tiny icon of a briefcase on Airbnb's website singled out this particular San Francisco apartment -- the one I'm writing from now -- as ideal for business travelers. A year old, Airbnb's business-ready listings program guarantees the presence of certain essentials that anyone traveling for work would need: shampoo, Wi-Fi, an iron and hair dryer, 24-hour access, and a host with a good track record. (See sidebar for more.)

That icon is what made me give Airbnb another shot after some, um, colorful experiences for work and personal travel, like that weeklong rental equipped with just half a roll of toilet paper. And the one whose owner refused to give me more towels after the shower flooded the bathroom floor. Or how about the dingy "studio apartment" that reeked of perfumed kitty litter and despair? The promise of greater quality control is appealing when standards swing so wildly.

"That's the good and bad about an Airbnb," says Evan Konwiser, a VP with American Express Global Business Travel, an Airbnb travel partner. "They're unique."

A taste of home

You'd think that employees traveling on the company dime would sneer at Airbnb's listings because each is so different from the next. Unlike traditional hotels, Airbnb doesn't let you collect loyalty points or seek help from an always-on concierge. There's no turndown service, no promise of a pool or fitness center, no cucumber water or 24-hour meal delivery. But there is character, and lots of personal space -- in San Francisco, up to twice the size of a typical hotel room for the same price. There's a stove to cook your own dinner, a fridge to store the leftovers, and a microwave to actually reheat them when hunger strikes.

For a road warrior or long-termer, a taste of home -- any home -- can be just the antidote to long days of work in cramped quarters. In inventory-crunched cities with sky-high hotel rates and only rickety, run-down options in your budget, a lower-priced Airbnb rental can improve your quality of life even if you do have to spring for your own TP. And reasonable hosts have been known to negotiate prices for extended stays.

shampoo.jpg

With Airbnb for business, it's OK if you forget your shampoo.

Josh Miller/CNET

"It's not like staying at a hotel downtown," said Marina Bianchi, an Airbnb "Superhost" who rents a clean, well-lit studio apartment in the San Francisco's residential Noe Valley district. "It's a real neighborhood," Bianchi added. "Can you imagine being in the financial district for three weeks? Awful."

Still, the lack of daily housekeeping is a deal-breaker for Cathy Park, a director at financial technology startup Xignite who hasn't used the program. "The last thing I want to do after a long day of work is to worry about cleaning the apartment." Otherwise, Park said she'd be willing to give up hotel perks to save money.

So far, the business program's proved effective. Employees from over 50,000 companies have used it, according to Lex Bayer, Airbnb's head of global payments and business development -- starting with Google and Salesforce.

Bayer knows that Airbnb lodgings won't please every traveler in every scenario, and that's OK. He also knows that Airbnb has work to do to keep its business-travel homes comfortable to stay in and easy to find online. Even then, things can go wrong.

"If you stay in a hotel and the Internet doesn't work, there's support staff to ensure that you get it up and running," says Michael Olson, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray. "For an Airbnb, the host will likely do their best...but you may not have the same kind of guarantees."

As a frequent traveler, I value my loyalty points, comfy bed and helpful concierge. But as I contemplate my laptop planted on the glass kitchen table, the open bag of popcorn plucked from my welcome basket, the smoothly running Wi-Fi and greenery flashing outside the window, I admit to the alluring humanity of this domestic scene.

I also know I got lucky this time. Not every listing will be this homey, and I'll never stop packing my own shampoo. But if an evolving program of business-ready listings can keep prices in check and rental quality high, then staying in an Airbnb for work instead of a hotel is a gamble I'd be willing to take.

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.