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Airbnb-Style Rentals Offer Businesses an Office by the Hour

By Serena Solomon | September 11, 2014 7:46am

CHELSEA — When East New York resident William Coles started Dreamland, a branding and design agency, this summer, he had a shortage of two main things — money and space.

He needed to gather his team of consultants regularly in order to bring in business, but the young agency couldn't afford an office space in which to meet. And with one staff member calling in from Texas, a loud, crowded café was not an option.

Cue Breather, a new Airbnb-style tech platform that rents rooms by the hour to be used as office or meeting space. With 11 rooms at sites throughout Manhattan — including in the Financial District, Flatiron and Midtown — Montreal-based Breather offers companies temporary access to space they might not otherwise be able to afford.

Cole said Breather has been a perfect way for his company to schedule about a dozen team meetings before it finally moves into its own Chelsea office later this month.

"Ideally you don't need to have an office at this point," Cole said.

Breather launched in New York City in February and has already amassed "thousands of bookings" from customers like Cole each month, according to founder Julien Smith.

Smith declined to give specifics, but said clients have used the spaces for a range of reasons, including rentals that provide space for breast-feeding mothers, give freelancers a temporary office or even offer a place to nap (there are couches, but no beds in the rooms.)

"There is no reason that you should have a full-time conference room in your office," Smith said. "It is an unproductive use of space."

The spaces all rent for $25 an hour, and feature WiFi, power outlets, a whiteboard, couches and chairs as well as a bowl of Tootsie Rolls, Smith said.

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Breather holds the lease on some rooms in its system but, for a handful of spaces, it subleases unused time from companies that use their office space part-time, Smith said. Breather makes sure each space meets its aesthetic, according to Smith.

The spaces can be booked online or through the Breather smartphone app. A code is then sent to the customer's phone to unlock the door to the room, which are cleaned after most bookings.

Because Breather relies on commercial spaces, rather than residential, officials say they're free from the headaches of the illegal hotel law that has plagued apartment-booking website Airbnb. Airbnb has come under fire from elected officials and the hotel lobby for violating a state law that prevents New Yorkers from renting their apartments for less than 30 days.

Officials for the Department of Buildings, the Department of Consumer Affairs, Small Business Services — as well as experts in commercial real estate — said they were unaware of any laws that would prevent short-term office leasing.

Airbnb officials have been locked in legal battles with the city and state, and last week announced that they would not comply with a request from the New York Attorney General's office to hand over the names of 124 users who may "flagrantly misuse" the Airbnb platform by maintaining multiple apartment listings, according to a statement from Airbnb.

Smith acknowledged that "hourly" is a tainted word, but added that unpermitted adult activity in Breather rooms has not been an issue so far. The terms and conditions require users to "wear appropriate clothing" while in the room.

Megan Collins, founder of the website the Style Girlfriend, books a Breather room when she is in-between meetings to either grab some down time or have an extra hour of productivity in her day. Collins does the bulk of her work from home on the Lower East Side or at SoHo House, where she is a member.

"If you don't have an office, there is something about just pretending you do for an hour," she said, adding that a Starbucks with WiFi is a noisy alternative that can end up costing you “a scone and a latte that is $10."

Jackson Simmonds, a hair stylist who lives in Astoria, booked an hour in a Breather space while waiting for a dinner after work. He now regularly uses it for a men's group that is studying a personal development book together.

"Sometimes you need a moment to check out and hide from the world and I think it's perfect," he said.