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KAI RYSSDAL: It's important in business to keep up appearances. You want your office to be appealing, your office staff professional and courteous. But appearances can be deceiving. When it's not actually your office, but more like a movie set. Complete with extras trotted out when necessary to give customers the illusion of a real place of business? Cash Peters tells us virtual offices are a growing trend.
CASH PETERS: Hi. D'you remember, years ago, how everybody had a P.O. box? Not now, though. That's so passe. Now the thing to have is a virtual office, which is even better than a P.O. box because a virtual office doesn't even exist. How cool is that?
Elisabeth Schwartze runs Access Office in Beverly Hills, and she has a space that 180 businesses worldwide treat as their space too.
Elisabeth Schwartze: All their calls come in. We transfer them back out to them. Their mail is delivered here and we forward it on too.
Her client companies have big, masculine names, too -- like First Nation Financial and Global Platinum Investments. Though for all we know they could be tiny, like one guy working out of his truck or from a corner table in Starbucks.
Danny Betsolken, for instance, is a small real estate broker, but with a strangely sprawling and impressive Beverly Hills office.
DANNY BETSOLKEN: The cost is reasonable. And the biggest thing is that they have the conference room space which allows us to meet with clients in an office.
RECEPTIONIST: Good morning, Power Brands.
Good morning. But once you pay a fee, which starts from about $119 a month, your company gets its own swanky reception area (wink, wink). It also has a switchboard manned by women pretending to be your staff (wink, wink). If necessary, they'll cover for the fact that you're really running your whole operation from a table in Starbucks.
Schwartze: They can become that person's personal assistant right away. "No, he's not in, he'll be back, he's in New York." So, it's a lot of acting that is involved in this business.
Hello. OK, that's all fine on the phone. But what if people show up at the front desk and insist on speaking to the CEO of the company right now? What then? Well, then it's Gwen Williams' job to fob them off somehow.
GWEN WILLIAMS: I just tell them he's not available because he's not here. He's usually in and out. That's all I can do for you.
PETERS: So you say he's in and out all day?
WILLIAMS: Right. Just about.
PETERS: How many times in the average day do you use the phrase, "Oh, he's away from his desk right now"?
WILLIAMS: Usually about 10.
PETERS: What are the other stock phrases?
WILLIAMS: He's in court.
PETERS: He's in court? Oh, I'd keep that to yourself, that one.
WILLIAMS: Or he's out in the field. Because he could be an attorney.
PETERS: Or a farmer.
Schwartze: It takes a lot of energy to keep this image up. I mean, if you're an agent -- which, we have some agents -- you have people who just pop in to see what your offices look like. Well, if you're never here, I would think that would cause some suspicion.
PETERS: Wouldn't you think?
SCHWARTZE: Yeah, and so what we do is we try to put everyone at ease, and the girls are very professional, and what they've done is become very good actresses.
That's right, they have. But be warned: Elisabeth has refused certain companies that wanted to turn her virtual office into a real one.
SCHWARTZE: I have said no to dog trainers who wanted to hold classes here.
PETERS: Wouldn't you just die? You'd have chihuahuas running through your office all day long.
SCHWARTZE: Or great Danes. And honestly, when we first opened, I had a plastic surgeon that wanted to have an office here. And he said, "Oh, well, if you could just get me near the sink, that would be good."
The best, yeuw, the best thing of all though is that because you have a virtual office, which is therefore nonexistent.
SCHWARTZE: Well it is. It is non-existent.
Exactly, like Narnia. You have none of the tiresome corporate trappings -- employees, for instance, or furniture to buy, or phones. Danny Betsolken loves that.
PETERS: In 20 years time are you in a magnificent corporate office? Do you have all the trappings then?
Betsolken: No, because I wouldn't want to spend that much on overhead. You know, if we have marble conference room tables that cost 20 grand each, that's coming out of my pocket.
PETERS: So this is just a glorified P.O. box really. Is it like P.O. boxes taken to the next level?
SCHWARTZE: A lot higher level, let's say. I don't think I like being called a P.O. box, OK?
PETERS: Oh, you are such a snob.
SCHWARTZE: Well, P.O. box.
In Los Angeles, at a table in Starbucks, but don't tell anyone that, I'm Cash Peters for Marketplace.