Snagging workers on the fly

Start-up rents computer hookups and quiet space by the minute to road warriors between flights

As the hard-traveling CEO of a consumer-products company, Bruce Merrell often found himself consigned to his own special circle of hell: the crowded concourses and lounges of U.S. airports. On one such trip he witnessed the ultimate frequent-flier indignity: a man in a three-piece suit had dropped down on all fours to grope for an electrical outlet to plug his laptop into. Merrell recalls exchanging glances with his business partner, Mark McNeely. "Whoa," they both thought. "Why don't we do this?"

"This" became Laptop Lane Ltd., the Seattle-based company that Merrell, McNeely, Grant Sharp, and J'Amy Owens cofounded in May 1996. Laptop Lane rents office space equipped with all the latest techno bells and whistles to business travelers between flights. After its debut, at the Cincinnati airport last May, the company plunged into Seattle a month later. Since then another 6 branches have opened for business, at Chicago's O'Hare and in Atlanta and Denver, and there are plans to open 10 more sites by year's end, at New York's LaGuardia and Los Angeles's LAX and in Philadelphia and Phoenix.

Laptop Lane is part of a crop of start-up companies attempting to exploit several related trends: the proliferation of laptop computers; increased business travel; and the transformation of work into a mobile, round-the-clock phenomenon. To serve businesspeople on the go, such companies rent out office space for short periods of time (Laptop Lane rents by the minute) in places like hotels, convention centers, office buildings, and airports, or offer related services, like newsletters and Web sites, to business nomads. These telework-related start-ups are helping "to fundamentally change how we live and work," says Gail Martin, executive director of the International Telework Association & Council, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.

At Laptop Lane locations a "cyberconcierge" greets customers and hands them a magnetic key to a private office. Each six-by-six-foot office comes with, among other things, two large desks, a desktop computer with Internet connections, a laser printer, a fax machine, and storage space. A multiline phone allows simultaneous telephoning, faxing, and Web surfing. The cost: $2 for the first five minutes; 38¢ for each additional minute.

"This is set up very well, and it's very quiet. It's something airports have needed for a long time," says Robert Stewart, the national network manager for a health-care company and a recent Laptop Lane customer at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Without Laptop Lane's electrical hookup, Stewart would have run down his laptop's battery halfway through his two-hour layover and "lost all my productivity," he notes.

But it may take more than electrical outlets and quiet office space to attract large numbers of business travelers to Laptop Lane, skeptics say.

Mark Wiatrowski, founder of Executive Office Club Inc., based in Washington, D.C., which rents temporary offices on demand, says Laptop Lane's Achilles' heel may prove to be personnel. "It will be hard for them to find and keep good 'concierges' because good candidates have to have both good people skills and good technology skills," he says. "Laptop Lane won't be able to pay them enough."

Merrell faces other risks as well. Although he has raised $2.5 million in private-placement funds, he says that he needs more capital to expand operations and build his company to the break-even point. So far, no better-capitalized competitor--such as Hyatt, Marriott, or a major airline--is challenging Laptop Lane, but success could draw formidable rivals into the market. And Merrell is ultimately at the mercy of the airports in which he does business; they could raise his rent, threatening his profit margin.

For now, however, Laptop Lane is the only game in town, and airport officials seem open to its offerings. When Michael Mullaney, the properties manager at the Cincinnati airport, invited vendors' proposals on installing office services, Laptop Lane was miles ahead of its would-be competitors. "The others," he says, "weren't even on the same continent as Laptop Lane."

Airport ace's ratings
Few people cast a keener eye on U.S. airports than roadaholic J'Amy Owens. She's the founder of the Seattle-based Retail Group, a retailing consultant that works with Goliaths like Nike, Starbucks, and Calvin Klein, as well as with upstart Laptop Lane, of which she's a cofounder and director.

Owens travels (she swears) 200 to 250 days a year. When she's not in the air, she's apt to be in an airport. "As many beautiful flagship airports as there are out there," she says, "there are an equal number of dreary, penitentiary-like, inhuman airports that smell bad and look bad."

Here is her take on the good, the bad, and the irredeemably ugly.

Washington Dulles: "In decline since its birth. The public spaces erode into rabbit warrens: small, dark hallways with the carpets coming up."

Pittsburgh: "First-class retailing inherent in the bone structure."

Phoenix: "They've made it regionally chauvinistic but not contrived. You're in the desert, not hanging out at a taco stand."

Orlando: "Fabulous shops. Little theme parks camped out at the airport as satellite ambassadors of the big show [Disney World]."

Detroit: "Horrific. The worst amalgam of patched-together junk. I expect to see potholes inside the airport."

Keeping pace with the teleworker army
The growth in this industry is going to be explosive," says Mark Wiatrowski, founder and president of Executive Office Club, based in Washington, D.C., which provides "on-demand" office space by the hour. Last year the company's revenues totaled $325,000, and sales are doubling every eight months, says Wiatrowski, who attributes the company's success to the burgeoning army of people who work while they're on the road.

A recent survey by the market-research firm Cyber Dialogue seems to buttress his case. The survey found that the U.S. population of what it called "teleworkers" leapt by 41% last year, to 15.7 million from 11.1 million in 1997. Cyber Dialogue projects an additional increase of 15%, to 18 million, in 2000. That's a far cry from the 1990 figure--just 4 million. Among traditional full-time workers nearly half do some teleworking.

Wiatrowski's company, which was founded in May 1997, is hardly alone in meeting the growing demands of a more mobile workforce. Tech-Ed Networks Inc., in Roseville, Calif., has begun installing business centers in hotels, as has Business Anywhere USA, started in September 1997 and based in Santa Ana, Calif.

And there are a range of businesses that provide support and information services to the teleworking brigade. They include Tmanage, a turnkey telework and systems-integration business based in Austin, which helps companies develop a telework strategy; and Travel E-Fix, an Atlanta on-line service that evaluates the teleworking features of hotels, airports, and other facilities.

Mobility Index: A statistical snapshot of Americans on the road

Average age of typical business traveler: 42

Average number of trips taken by a business traveler in a year: 15

Average number of trips taken by a business traveler five years ago: 9

Percentage of all air travelers who are on business trips: 57%

Percentage of all business air travelers who carry a laptop: 70%

Percentage of business travelers who work en route: 96%

Source: The Air Index of Airport Performance, 1999, Airport Interviewing & Research Inc., White Plains, N.Y.