The number of meeting and convention attendees booking Airbnb is going to grow exponentially in the future due to the overall value proposition for individual travelers with a thirst for local exploration and discovery.

There has been a growing stream of stories covering the rise of conference delegates booking sharing accommodations in the meetings trade media, but much of the content to date has been overarching, shallow and/or misinformed.

Since August 2014, I’ve booked Airbnb for five conferences in the U.S. and Europe. The purpose of this post is to provide a more detailed case study to highlight the benefits and challenges for meeting attendees booking shared accommodations.

Companies like Airbnb are clearly not for everyone. They require renters to be comfortable with a more fluid and social arrival and overnight experience. You don’t typically know exactly what you’re going to get when you arrive in terms of your hosts and their accommodations, so there’s a certain level of the unknown and unexpected.

Many people wonder: What if the room is not as nice as the professional photo on the Airbnb site? What happens if something goes wrong? What is the neighborhood like at night? What if the hosts are weird?

That deters people, naturally. Detractors will argue that business travelers want conformity and assurances in their hospitality provider that they can rely on unequivocally. Global hotel brands were built on that premise.

Also, many corporate meeting attendees are restricted from booking Airbnb and other sharing companies due to legal and liability issues in their company’s HR, accounting and procurement policies. That doesn’t impact association attendees as much who are attending on an independent basis.

Here’s the ROI. Airbnb is a platform for spontaneous travel that delivers opportunities for serendipitous local destination experiences. Often at half the price of a hotel.

The following five Airbnb rentals all provided more immersive travel options and memorable conferences than I likely would have enjoyed if I booked the room block. All five provided quick access to cool restaurants, cafes, bars, parks, and cultural venues frequented by locals that I probably wouldn’t have discovered if I wasn’t in the area.

Airbnb’s other primary draw is economical. The old misperception that Airbnb is designed for budget travelers has been widely disproved. A sample test in New York for this week shows over 700 listings for Airbnb rentals above $500 per night in Manhattan. However, for my purposes, the below Airbnb rentals were chosen as much for their cost-effective rate as their location.

I booked both Airbnb accommodation categories. The “Entire Home/Apt” option gives renters sole use of the unit, so you have a lot more privacy. In many cases, especially in urban areas, hosts offering this kind of rental are in violation of local laws. With the “Private Room” category, you’re living with the people who occupy the same unit. The latter is usually substantially less expensive than booking an entire unit in the same area.

As noted below in the rate descriptions, Airbnb renters in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. pay an occupancy tax similar to a hotel bed tax. This is one reason why so many destination marketing organizations are loathe to promote Airbnb in their cities, even though much of their staff want to, because Airbnb hosts are often not paying into the funding pool that supports DMOs.

Visit this Airbnb page for a full list of cities that charge occupancy tax through the Airbnb booking engine.

Airbnb first launched in San Francisco in 2007 based on an experiment to host conference attendees faced with a sold-out hotel market. In the summer of 2010, the company hosted 47,000 people. This past summer, that number jumped to almost 17 million. A growing portion of those travelers were conference attendees, and here’s why.

1. Meeting Professionals International (MPI), World Education Conference, Minneapolis, August 1-5, 2014

Unit (Entire Apt): Top floor of a historic two-story house in a residential community five blocks from the Minneapolis Convention Center

Rate: $129 x 4 nights + $62 Airbnb service fee = $578

Experience: This specific property first grabbed my attention because the hosts promoted it as a convention center rental. The top floor of the 1930s house in Minneapolis’ Mansion District had a lock-off door at the foot of the stairs in the entry hall, three bedrooms, full kitchen, 1.5 baths, a small outdoor deck, and back stairs leading to the landscaped backyard. The kitchen was surrounded by tall windows and stocked with coffee, cereal and fruit, while the three bedrooms were tastefully decorated with expensive mid-century furnishings and modern art.

This is a good example of a unit well-suited for multiple attendees traveling together, in which case the per-person nightly fees are less than dinner.

The hosts presented keys, a map and directions to the nearby grocery and neighborhood restaurants on arrival. I enjoyed the early morning, 15-minute walk to the convention center every day to clear my head for the days’ sessions. At night, I joined other residents walking along Nicollet Avenue to places like the Icehouse MPLS for live music. Even though the neighborhood is close to downtown, it felt a world away on the other side of the 94 Interstate.

Noteworthy: I decided to extend one night but my unit was booked. So the hosts gave me their downstairs Airbnb private room for $125 cash. The Wi-Fi upstairs was sketchy a couple times, which I shared with the hosts who said they were adding a separate line. One of the hosts drove me to the airport at no cost.

2. Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), Convening Leaders Conference, Chicago, January 11-14, 2015

Unit (Private Room): Small bedroom in a renovated historic penthouse loft located midway between downtown Chicago and McCormick Place Convention Center

Rate: $85 x 3 nights + $31 Airbnb service fee = $286

Experience: The elevator opens into the living room of this large two-bedroom penthouse loft with 15-foot ceilings, brick walls, hardwood floors, and an open demonstration kitchen. The Airbnb private room is right off the side of the elevator, but you have to walk across the kitchen to access the one bathroom on the other side.

Every morning, I would get up early and leave before the host woke, and walk around the block to Michigan Avenue to grab a coffee and croissant. Cabs were plentiful for the $5 ride to McCormick. Giordano’s Pizza two blocks away on Michigan is the best pizza I’ve ever had.

This was the first time booking a private room, where you just sort of move in with complete strangers. I wasn’t sure how that would work beforehand but it turned out fine after you get used to it. The host recommended a couple restaurants, including Giordano’s, and after the initial meet and greet, I didn’t see him again until final departure.

Noteworthy: $85 per night in prime Chicago real estate. Enough said. Very cool penthouse loft and convenient central location in the South Loop’s Prairie District.

3. Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), Destinations Showcase Conference, Washington D.C., March 24-29, 2015

Unit (Entire Apt): One-bedroom ground floor apartment in the historic Eastern Market neighborhood

Rate: $120 x 5 nights + $72 Airbnb service fee + $87 occupancy tax = $759

Experience: The Eastern Market area is east of Capitol Hill, about a $10-$12 Uber ride to Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The actual Eastern Market building on 7th Street opened in 1873, and it has a private event space where I visited one night to watch a tango class. The rest of the market is filled with artisanal and fresh food vendors. There’s also an outdoor market on weekends. Surrounding the heritage building, the streets are lined with local restaurants that are mostly devoid of tourists. Senart’s Oyster & Chop House is a good place to entertain clients and hang out with colleagues.

This Airbnb rental is owned by a young Millennial girl who travels frequently, while her boyfriend at the Pentagon helps process Airbnb guests. The keys were in the mailbox so I never met either one, although the boyfriend called once to make sure everything was okay. The tiny apartment has a cute kitchen with a wooden bar to work at, and there’s a nearby grocery where I bought coffee and snacks. The bedroom in the back leads out to a private patio garden. The one thing you realize after renting Airbnb a few times is that a lot of people have much more interesting homes than you do.

Noteworthy: It doesn’t get anymore local than this. Never waited more than five minutes for Uber. Spent way more than I should have on dining because there are so many good places to go. The distance from the convention center could be an issue for some delegates, but I specifically sought out this area based on social media recommendations.

4. DMAI Marketing Innovation Summit, San Francisco, April 14-18, 2015

Unit (Private Room): Small bedroom in two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods

Rate: $118 x 4 nights + $30 cleaning fee + $60 Airbnb service fee + $65 occupancy tax = $625

Experience: My host at this third-floor walk-up greeted me at the door, showed me her long list of neighborhood places to check out, and then with me arriving only five minutes before, she left me alone in her two-bedroom apartment. There’s nothing fancy here but the unit does have a comfortable homey vibe with lots of light in the street-facing Airbnb guest room (above photo). Bathroom is small and filled with host’s innumerable bottles of whatever girls require in a bathroom.

I didn’t spend anytime at all in this apartment except to sleep and shower. I never saw the host again, although she did text a few times to see how things were going.

Caffe Trieste on Vallejo Street is one of San Francisco’s most iconic coffeeshops, where the Beat poets used to write poetry and drink cheap wine and whiskey. I discovered it during a neighborhood tour using the Detour geo-location app, which explains the history of Ginsberg, Kerouac and friends as you walk along the self-guided itinerary starting at the famous City Lights Bookstore. Best travel day in the last year.

Noteworthy: A total of $156 per night in San Francisco coupled with an incredible neighborhood to explore outside the front door epitomizes Airbnb’s value proposition in first-tier global cities. Due to the rate, I extended this trip one day. On two occasions I took a $6 streetcar ride to and from the event at The Marker San Francisco, which was a Kimpton Hotel at the time. Saved additional funds with Uber’s car pool program.

5. Incentive Travel, Meetings & Events Exhibition (IMEX), IMEX Frankfurt, May 18-23, 2015

Unit (Entire Apt): One-bedroom, ground floor executive apartment within a 20-minute walk to Messe Frankfurt Convention Center

Rate: $109 x 5 nights + $29 cleaning fee + $69 Airbnb service fee = $643

Experience: Owned by a fastidious PricewaterhouseCoopers executive, this apartment is immaculate and very streamlined. Most luxurious of any Airbnb I’ve rented. Host left explicit instructions about how to water his plants. Also asked me to open doors occasionally to let the place breathe. Bedroom and living room have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open out to a patio facing a quiet courtyard lawn. I got a lot of work accomplished here.

Across the street, there are a couple decent restaurants and a shopping mall with Starbucks and Chipotle. So it’s not the most spectacular local German experience, but then neither is Frankfurt. Never heard a word of English in the area. The neighborhood is kind of boring at night and the host didn’t provide much local information, but the proximity to the convention center makes up for that because there wasn’t a large selection for Airbnb rentals here.

Noteworthy: This is the one time when the host and I had to use Airbnb’s Resolution Center. The host, who was traveling at the time, had a friend deliver the key on the first morning. I was asked to leave the key in the unit on the last day, but I left it in the lock in the interior side of the front door. Not sure why. With dead bolts in North America, you can open the door from the outside if a key is in the lock on the other side.

Upon returning home, the host required a locksmith to open the door, so he billed me an additional 150 euros through the resolution page. I paid the additional fee and we both gave each other positive reviews. I debated challenging this for a few minutes but it wasn’t worth getting a negative review.

Final Analysis 

These five experiences show a fairly broad perspective of the different types of urban accommodations available on Airbnb. The payment and communication functionality in both the Airbnb mobile app and website worked seamlessly. Everything hinges on the reviews people give to each other, so the hosts and I generally went out of our way to make sure we communicated well and respected each other’s property and privacy.

There were some times during the day when I missed being able to pop up to a hotel guest room during the conferences. That’s the biggest challenge for conference attendees when you want to drop off materials and freshen up.

However, if it wasn’t for Airbnb, I wouldn’t have attended a few of these conferences, especially Frankfurt and San Francisco where the hotel rates during those weeks were somewhat prohibitive.

Airbnb often promotes how it helps hosts make incremental income. It also helps conference attendees develop professionally by making meetings and events more affordable.

Tags: airbnb
Photo Credit: The author rented this Airbnb private room near the North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods in San Francisco. Airbnb