Baltimore area's celebrity hostess Boarders: The famous are among those who have found a home away from home through Melanie Sabelhaus.

March 29, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

New Orioles slugger Joe Carter needed a home for the season, Winona Ryder wanted $800 sheets on her bed and the Saudi royal family ordered a freshly killed lamb for dinner.

Playing hostess to Baltimore's famous visitors isn't always easy, but Melanie Sabelhaus isn't complaining. The former sales manager for International Business Machines Corp. who started out offering her Owings Mills guest house to executives 11 years ago now heads up sales for a multimillion-dollar company that provides lodging in 17 U.S. cities and London.

Movie stars, professional athletes, business executives and parties to famous divorces top the client list for BridgeStreet Accommodations, which was formed in 1996 in a merger that included Sabelhaus' Baltimore-based Exclusive Interim Properties.

Sabelhaus now is overseeing an aggressive expansion of the company throughout the United States and Europe as BridgeStreet attempts to make a name for itself in the burgeoning short-term housing business.

Having moved eight times in 16 years with her husband, a Legg Mason executive, Sabelhaus knows well the life of the uprooted professional. In 1987, she decided to provide an alternative to hotel living for those transferred or temporarily assigned to new jobs. She placed a classified ad in The Sun offering her two-bedroom guest cottage in Owings Mills and Exclusive Interim Properties was born.

"I always wanted to have my own business," Sabelhaus said. "I truly felt it was the American dream." Her first client was an out-of-town lawyer who jumped at the chance to escape living in a downtown hotel. Succeeding at renting her guest house, Sabelhaus next found a Federal Hill rowhouse for lease and went on a $10,000 shopping spree to furnish the home.

Within months, Sabelhaus was earning more in the short-term housing business than she was as an IBM executive. She quit her job and expanded her inventory, offering properties in Cross Keys, Owings Mills, Towson and Hunt Valley.

Rental furniture helped reduce her outlay of cash, but she still shopped for the personal touches, regularly hauling back truckloads of antiques and knickknacks from auctions on the Eastern Shore.

"I even bought a moose head for my log cabin," she said. "I want my properties to look like home."

By 1996, when Exclusive Interim Properties merged with four other companies, Sabelhaus was managing more than 600 leased units in the Baltimore-Washington area, offering clients choices ranging from Inner Harbor condominiums to Federal Hill rowhouses to apartments in Owings Mills and Columbia. Prices can range from $65 a night for an apartment to $500 a night for an estate house.

When the owner of a short-term rental business in Cleveland approached Sabelhaus about the merger, she hesitated, hating to give up the freedom of owning her own company. But, eventually, she decided the sacrifice was worth the excitement of taking the business global. And with competition from bigger companies and extended-stay and all-suite hotels, she knew the merger made sense.

"We could compete with the big boys," Sabelhaus said.

Last September, BridgeStreet went public with an initial stock offering of $9 a share. Shares now trade around $11.

With the merger, Sabelhaus' inventory of properties has grown to 6,000 units that can be rented for as little as one night or as long as a year. As vice president of national and international sales, Sabelhaus is leading the company's expansion to cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Toronto -- and into Europe.

"The potential for that market will be as great or greater than here," she said.

Sabelhaus said she can offer variety the others can't match. She has houses, condominiums, townhouses and apartments downtown and in the suburbs -- and at prices less than at first-class hotels.

And there are the extras -BridgeStreet provides -- neighborhood orientation tours and information on schools, doctors, restaurants and shopping.

"We're offering more than a place to live; we're offering a lifestyle, a neighborhood," Sabelhaus said.

While BridgeStreet provides temporary housing for a number of Orioles, some of Sabelhaus' most demanding customers have come from the Hollywood film industry, which has discovered Maryland in recent years.

"The Hollywood industry is a very tough client," said Jack Gerbes, deputy director of the Maryland Film Office. "They want what they want, and they want it yesterday."

Like Winona Ryder and her sheets. Sabelhaus had to order 900-thread count sheets and have them stone washed eight times to meet the actress' demands.

The company also had to scramble to find accommodations on a farm for a movie production coordinator who refused to travel without her horse.

Sam Sheppard and Jessica Lange needed separate accommodations for their bodyguards and special surveillance cameras.

Jennifer Jason Leigh demanded all white walls to help her concentrate.

And the director of Major League II ordered cases of Evian bottled water.

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