When Darryl Anderson decided to expand his business across Canada, he knew he would be facing a challenge.
His company, Wave Point Consulting, provides advice and strategic planning in the areas of trade development, transportation and logistics. While Mr. Anderson was looking to compete with the big players, he also wanted to continue residing in Victoria.
"My family moved three times in five years and they basically said, do whatever you want, but we're not moving again," he said.
He could not afford to lease offices in triple-A towers across the country, but Mr. Anderson knew that the high-level, senior decision makers he wanted to work with were not going to be content to meet in a hotel lobby or coffee shop. So he decided to go virtual.
Mr. Anderson signed up with Regus Canada to get access to a vast network of "virtual offices." Though he does much of his work from his home, as far as his clients are concerned, Wave Point Consulting has offices in every region in Canada, complete with full reception and technological support, board rooms, offices and business lounges when and where he needs them.
"The virtual office is in my home location of Victoria, they take my mail, I have reception and phone service, access to a private office," he said. "I have to go in and out of Vancouver a fair bit … If I need to meet a client in the afternoon, I go into the business centre [there], I have access to whatever resources I need. Sometimes I just need a place I can go and prepare for a client, a place I can think. The business lounge gives me access to wireless, I can have a cup of coffee, or sometimes I need a project debriefed."
It's a trend that is growing as more small and medium-sized businesses seek to do national and international business without incurring overhead costs. Technology has given entrepreneurs a global reach, but not every client is going to be content with communicating by Skype.
Small business consultant Mark Evans says the flexibility of a virtual office can be appealing as companies seek to keep costs down and yet still serve their clients.
"You can have the best of both worlds," he said. "You can have the virtual office, and when you need it, you take the physical space."
Regus is one of the heavyweights in the virtual office world. Wes Lenci, vice-president of Regus's Canadian operations based in Calgary, says they have more than 1,200 locations around the world, including some of the most prestigious addresses in Canada (such as First Canadian Place in Toronto, Pacific Centre in Vancouver and Sun Life Plaza West Tower in Calgary). Clients can choose to use an address solely for business cards, a mailing address and phone support, or for office space and technological support.
"We'll rent an office for a day, a week or a year," he said. "Clients want flexibility, they don't want to sign in for a 10-year head lease that you can't get out of. If you wanted to have a North American presence, you could have a virtual office in Vancouver, Toronto, New York and Los Angeles for less than $500 a month and put that on your business card."
Business centres are designed without a great deal of Regus branding, Mr. Lenci said, and receptionists are trained to answer with the client's company name.
"It's seamless, [anyone] walking into the centres to meet with any of our clients won't know that they only have one office and the other two are virtual," he said.
Though it has the largest network of business centres, Regus isn't the only company offering virtual office services – companies such as Intelligent Office, The Network Hub, Griffin Centre and The Rostie Group are also taking advantage of the growing demand.
But does it really matter whether you're in a LEED-certified, prestigious office tower versus a more low-end location, if you can get the work done? Mr. Anderson says with his client base, being able to meet in a triple-A office can tip the scales in his favour.
"It does make a difference, because what we do for clients is often intangible. How do you judge if someone is an effective writer? You can't watch the process of writing and research," he said. "If you show you care about your surroundings, you're showing that I trust and care about you and it's that intangible that will separate you. Because if they don't trust you, they aren't going to do business with you."
John Broos is the director of Donaldson & James, a professional recruiting firm based in Waterloo, Ont., with virtual offices including Ottawa, Mississauga and Calgary.
"We've taken the functional equivalent of a 3,000– or 4,000-square-foot office in a 'B' location, and we've taken those resources and spread them across the country," he said.
Having virtual offices in various Canadian cities allows him to work with the best potential recruiters in the country, Mr. Broos said.
"In our marketing efforts, the question would come back from recruiters asking, 'Do you have an office in my area?' And we're able to say, yes, we have representation in Calgary or Montreal or Halifax or wherever, so then they can say, 'Let's have a further conversation,' " he said. "Immediately it gives us presence for the recruiter."
Once a recruiter has signed on to work with them, Mr. Broos said they can "convert the virtual to actual" – give them access to an office in the city closest to them. Or recruiters can work from home with the added bonus of a prestigious address.
"Otherwise we leave it as virtual, and it gives them an address for their business cards … a high-calibre, high-visibility, known location," he said. "In the recruitment world, the tools have changed, they can work in their basement in their PJs and be super-effective."
It's this kind of flexibility that is allowing businesses to have employees in cities around the world, Mr. Evans said.
"I think businesses are operating as federations," he said. "They have people in locations around the world, but it's almost like a federated network as opposed to physical offices. So it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can have a presence in different markets, but they don't have to have a physical presence other than the people." Mr. Anderson is currently working on a proposal with people "on either end of the country" for a client north of Toronto. Having a virtual office has enabled him to meet with his East Coast colleague without breaking the bank.
"He can get in with an airfare cheap, I can get an airfare cheap, and we have a base to work out of in Toronto," he said. "Now I have an effective way of organizing talent from wherever the talent resides versus a physical location. Now I can compete with the big people who have lots of physical locations and lots of talented people."
"If you have access to an airport and a Regus business centre, I can compete," he said.
It's the kind of movement that could help smaller businesses take on the larger players, Mr. Evans said.
"The playing field is leveling from a physical location point of view," he said. "I think there's a lot of hybrids out there – there's physical and virtual and I think the different flavours in between are changing, and it's going to be an interesting space as they evolve."
What it costs
Toronto - First Canadian Place
100 King St. West, Suite 5600, Toronto, Ont., M5V 1K4
Mailbox: $99 a month (does not include call answering)
Virtual office: $199 (includes address, call answering, two days in the office a month and access to any business lounge in Regus locations across Canada.)
Victoria - The Atrium
1321 Blanshard Street/800 Yates Street, Suite 301, Victoria, B.C. V8W 0B5
Virtual office: $99
Calgary - Garrison Green
5 Richard Way SW, Suite 300, Calgary, Alta., T3E 7M8
Virtual office: $159
Note: The price for virtual offices starts at $99 a month, and is for 12 months and for new customers only.
Source: Regus Canada