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Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Risk Diary: How a little inn became 'in' with the hip crowd
By Donald I. Hammond, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The phrase "home away from home" is an important one to Michael Plesset, managing partner of the Shadyside Inn. Started with his late brother about 15 years ago, the inn and its more than 100 suites in Shadyside off Fifth Avenue has proven popular with celebrities and business people alike.

What prompted the two of you to go into the hotel business, and why this inn?

My younger brother and I had just taken a chance and bought a building in Miami Beach, Fla. and we got a call from somebody coming down for the winter [who] wanted to know if they could rent a furnished apartment for three months for $1,500 a month. We almost fainted. Here we were renting unfurnished apartments in this building on the ocean. So we thought, why not do this in Pittsburgh?

How did the business progress in Pittsburgh? What got you going?

We put an ad in the paper and we got a call from [movie director] George Romero. He said, "Gee, we're doing this movie here and we want to see one of your suites." He thought it was nice -- we had only 10 suites at the time. He came over with Adrienne Barbeau and really liked the place. She went back, and I swear the phone started ringing off the hook from California. We got a call from a musical traveling group wanting 58 suites, I think it was, and we couldn't do it. So we thought, let's expand. This is the mid-'80s. We caught the eye of the University of Pittsburgh, and Dr. [Thomas] Starzl, the transplant surgeon, made arrangements for some doctors who were coming in from all over the world to see transplant surgery being done. Some of the patients' families stayed here, too. And we got business from the royal family of Saudi Arabia as well. They all wanted a home away from home along with good service.

What were the risks of opening a small hotel business like yours? Pittsburgh doesn't seem like the kind of city where that would be successful.

We took our time. We did things a little at a time. We turned a couple of apartments into suites, and then we said, well, what about doing a little more? We phased in a lot of things. It wasn't a particularly painful risk because we already had the location, and that's the main thing you need. We provide a suite for less than many hotel rooms, and that brought in repeat business; so it really wasn't a hard risk.

How do you compete with the big hotels? And with other hotels with more familiar names and reputations opening near you soon, what will you do to compete and how do you cut the risk?

We feel we're the small guys in a desperate fight with the big guys. So what we do is to take care of and focus on our customers. It's about them. We've also got location. We have the price and amenities, and the rest is service. If we can get them the one time, we're pretty sure we got them.

What special lengths do you have to go to in order to serve celebrities -- and what are the risks of housing such well known people?

We just ask them, "What can we do to make your stay more comfortable?" And then we do it. There was one lady star who didn't want aluminum pots and pans in her suite. So we got her steel. Hey, whatever it takes. The astronaut Buzz Aldrin stayed with us a couple of times, and all he wanted was to make sure there was a big color television in his suite. That was it. Then there was Paul Newman. He borrowed a baseball cap from our head lady here so he could wear the cap and nobody would see his face and eyes. Believe me, if you saw how blue his eyes were, you'd know it was Paul Newman. So he borrowed the cap and wore it.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you were to do the same project today?

Actually, nothing. I'd do it the same way. The primary thing I'd remember is that old, tested real estate saying -- location, location, location.