Not everyone wants to be cutting edge, but almost everybody wants to be cool. BizSpace’s Emma Long explains to David Thame how one growing out-of-town serviced office provider hopes to keep the suburbs happy.
Lazy assumptions, stereotypical thinking: prejudice is a dreadful thing – and it is as prevalent in the office market as anywhere else. One sector that really suffers from a large dose of prejudice is the suburban office market.
The very word ‘suburban’ seems to tell a story. It suggests cosy, neat, perhaps rather chintzy and conservative. Above all, it suggests normal. A suburban location is a no-surprise place. Yawn, yawn. In the last decade, the suburban office market has suffered from exactly this stigma. The trendy people work in city centres and you folks out in the business parks – well, sorry guys, you’re just not very cool.
One business-space landlord is trying to change this and there is nothing of the above about the woman in charge of its efforts, BizSpace Commercial Director Emma Long.
BizSpace claims to be the UK’s largest provider of flexible workspace. It is in the midst of a £37m investment, which is adding new suburban workspaces to its network – and design is at the centre of what it does.
Since September 2017, BizSpace, has added 351,000 sq ft to its portfolio. Backed by Värde Partners, BizSpace now has a total of 105 UK-wide properties, equating to over 6 million sq ft under ownership. Recent openings include Waltham Abbey in Essex, Hemel Hempstead, Cardiff, Doncaster and Cheadle in Greater Manchester.
The company has also invested £25 million into refurbishing and updating its core portfolio, implementing cost-saving programmes, reducing energy consumption and improving the work environment for its 4,000 micro and SME customers.
The aim, says Long, is to appeal to those who do not want a tedious commute into town and who would prefer a small business base close to their home. You could call them the ‘busy mum’ demographic, although that’s not an expression BizSpace uses.
‘It’s always been about the ’burbs for us,’ Emma says. ‘Our clients don’t want the city centre. They want a location near home, with parking.
‘We are the Premier Inn of our sector. We’re competitive, well designed, you can take what you want, we’re not in the city centre, so our rates are lower – and we found during the last recession we were the perfect product for people who want to take their business off the kitchen table, and to grow their business.’
Office design matters: perhaps not in the hypertensive way that it does in city centre coworking environments, but look and feel, textures and colours, are still important in creating a business-like but lively environment.
‘The majority of our customers are micro-businesses, entrepreneurs or freelancers,’ Emma explains. ‘Our aim is to provide them with a space that inspires them, gives them a sense of togetherness and makes them more productive. Running your own business can be tough and we want our customers to have a place that feels like home and that they want to come into every day.’
The result is a decision to customise each business centre, giving each a strong sense of local identity. ‘We approach each of our business centres in an individual way to achieve a fit-out that reflects the location and the target market – for example, in our Altrincham centre, the tiles and features give a nod to the area’s historic market,’ says Emma.
‘We also try to support our customers wherever possible: the principal design company we use for our interiors is a customer of ours.
‘It’s not all about quirky bean bags, and its not all about millennials. We’ve done nice ‘olde worlde’ fit-outs – rugs and blue and white tiles. The design has to fit the people who come to our buildings, and they are mostly from a 3-5-mile radius.’
BizSpace is still expanding. It is now looking for new sites in the Midlands as it steps up its presence in out-of-city-centre markets.
The expansion plans follow the acquisition of Zenith House in Solihull, purchased earlier this year for £4.6 million. The 24,000 sq ft facility has now been refurbished to meet the BizSpace specification.
‘We don’t just aim to provide them with a desk to sit at, but a range of spaces to suit multiple activities, whether helping them to focus on a task or encouraging interaction and collaboration,’ Emma tells us. ‘We’re really pleased with the Solihull office, which is already 20% let after only a few weeks.
‘In the Midlands we’re looking at Coventry, mixed industrial/office, or just office space over 35,000 sq ft and we’ll look again at Wolverhampton. Maybe also one on the outskirts of Birmingham.’
Faced with the exponential expansion of city based coworking operations like WeWork, BizSpace has to keep its eye on the latest trends. They certainly don’t see WeWork as a rival.
‘Good luck to them, I say,’ Emma responds. ‘They’ve opened up the serviced office market, which is a good thing, and in that sense they have done us a favour. Suddenly serviced office is cool and coworking is a buzzword.
‘WeWork and Regus are making a city centre offer – and their buildings are in great locations, and their design is fabulous. I don’t think they are doing anything wrong. But we need to listen to the customers we have. We started in this business long before them and we’ve outlived a lot of others – and we will out-live more.’
The serviced office sector benefited from the last recession – it offered flexibility at a time when nobody wanted to make commitments, and was able to make it pay because much of the floorspace was in low-cost secondary locations.
Today, the serviced office sector has higher-cost premises in better locations – and, for city centre based operators, the cost of their premises will define their future prospects if the economy takes a tumble. But for BizSpace, and others operating in lower-cost out-of-town locations, the future looks distinctly rosy.