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Virtual offices are in real demand

Using shared work spaces -- meeting and conference areas, reception desks and copy rooms -- only when needed is a less-costly alternative to multiyear leases in these tough economic times.

April 01, 2010|By Diane Mastrull
  • Brian Lureen, left, of Heritage Fincorp Inc. trains Alan Lichtenstein and Todd Condiff in a conference room at a virtual office in Radnor, Pa.
Brian Lureen, left, of Heritage Fincorp Inc. trains Alan Lichtenstein… (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel…)

Philadelphia — In the troubled world of commercial real estate, where available space far exceeds what is needed, landlords have another reason to reach for the antacids:

Demand is growing for virtual offices.

That's not a patch of beach where you plant a chair, crack open a cold one, set up your laptop and declare yourself "at the office."

A virtual office is shared work space -- meeting and conference areas, reception desks, copy rooms -- used on an as-needed basis and at a cost that could be considerably less than rent under a conventional multiyear office lease.

It includes shared support services too. Depending on the provider, that could mean a receptionist and a team of administrative assistants to help develop marketing plans and create business cards and brochures.

And sometimes, just a stiff drink is in order. At American Executive Centers' virtual-office facility in King of Prussia, Pa., manager Gwen Bonsall Donnon dipped into the office-party stash one day to come to the aid of a client who declared after a rough day: "I need a rum and Coke."

Donnon also is keeper of the props. In her office, among other things, is a box of framed photos belonging to one of the virtual-office clients. She puts them out when he visits to help personalize his rented space.

"We even put trash in the trash can so it looks like he's been in there," she said.

The Philadelphia region has at least five virtual-office providers offering a range of space and services. Costs range from $60 a month (for a corporate address to which mail can be sent) to $460 a month.

At American Executive, believed to be the region's largest locally based virtual-office provider, with seven facilities, business is up 75% over the last year, said President G. Michael Howard. Lawyers account for 30% of new clients; entrepreneurs and start-up companies make up an additional 25%.

And for the first time in its 27-year history, Howard said, American Executive's virtual-office clients outnumber conventional tenants, 550 to 375.

For years, virtual-office users were typically global companies wanting a place to hold meetings during temporary visits.

But the concept's appeal has grown recently, in large part because of the recession, said Bruce Bard, managing director of Intelligent Office, a virtual-office operator in Marlton, N.J., with about 135 clients.

"When the times get tough, people look to drop their overhead expenses -- to work from home or find cheaper alternatives without losing their professionalism," Bard said.

Nancy Fox, general manager of Office Works in Trevose, Pa., called its virtual offices "the hybrid space between a post office box . . . and an actual physical office" secured by a long-term lease.

"It's a way to take that step forward during these hard times for people who are afraid to spend money," Fox said.

Mastrull writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer / McClatchy.

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