Mention chairman Prithvi Raj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi's name to any executive in the hospitality industry, regardless of rank, and there’s a nod of respect and acknowledgment of what the veteran hotelier has done for the industry not just in India but worldwide.
Oberoi, who stepped down from his position executive chairman of EIH Limited, the flagship company of The Oberoi Group, and as chairman of Oberoi Hotels Private Limited, the major shareholder of EIH Limited, took over the reins from his father the founder-promoter of the company when he was in his fifties, cut a flamboyant figure on the social circuit.
In his custom-tailored suits and jackets replete with silk pocket squares and ties, Cohiba cigar firmly in hand, Oberoi a graduate of St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school in Darjeeling, became the poster-boy for the good life in his prime years.
By then, the Oberoi Group of Hotels, already a force to reckon with, became firmly entrenched in its position with a reputation for the best personalised service and attention to detail that a guest could expect and hope for.
Brij Raj ‘Diamond’ Oberoi, whose mother and Biki Oberoi’s mother, were sisters and is a hotelier himself who runs a chain of resorts in Sikkim and West Bengal, says that even in the last few years, the senior Oberoi remained very involved with the chain. "He was fully plugged into all the decision-making within the company. While and until he was there, there was only One Mr Oberoi."
Rakesh Sarna, the former head of the Taj Group of Hotels and a veteran hotelier who also worked in leadership roles with the Hyatt Group overseas, says that in the Indian context, there are only two brands that cement the very notion of 'world-class hospitality", and which were set up and built over many decades by leaders like Ajit B Kerkar for IHCL and Biki Oberoi for the Oberoi Group. "His ability to take the brand to global heights and sustain its brand and quality levels for so many decades demonstrated how and why he has been a giant in the world of hospitality," Sarna said.
P.R.S Oberoi took over as the chairman of the chain in 2002 and his own upbringing reflected his offerings. He was well-travelled, a power-dresser, a good listener and possessed of a curious mind. In his later years, he would reside in India at his expensive farmhouse in Kapashera, with finely manicured lawns and trees. The peacocks prancing around let the estate a feudal touch of an India long gone but one that was tasteful and reflected the best of the subcontinent's splendour and style. To hear those who know him tell it, he never stopped reading, constantly browsing through the latest trends in the industry, keeping up to speed with management reports and studies that would foretell which way the industry was headed, and would often share his learnings with the top managers from time to time.
Oberoi, now 93-years old, joined the business when he was well into his forties, until which he lived in the best hotels in New York, London, and Paris, hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. The Carlyle in Rome, the Ritz in Paris, and the Richemont in Geneva – he was a frequent visitor at all these establishments, not just as a guest but also a student absorbing what made them icons.
Several firsts that Oberoi kicked off included shopping corridors within hotels, pairing two assets together within the same premises –– one more premium and one slightly cheaper worked out (Oberoi and Trident).
Oberoi’s firm belief was that people are the most valuable asset of any organisation. Recognising the importance of quality in hospitality management, he established ‘The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development’ at New Delhi in 1967, from which many top hotel executives graduated and are part of the industry across brands today.
Kapil Chopra, former president of the Oberoi Group and presently founder of Postcard Hotels, says that the setting up of the Vilas resorts was a monumental step in creating high-end destinations of the country and is clearly one of his biggest contributions. Today, they include the Rajvilas, Udaivilas, Sukhvilas, Vanyavilas, and the Wildflower Hall resort, which is also a 'Vilas" in some ways. It literally served as India's answer to Aman Resorts, and put India on that high-end luxury map.
“The real disposable wealth of scale in India in my opinion only took off in 2010 and people started living it up," he said. "Wildflower Hall would have had 99 percent occupancy after that and in his time he was way ahead of his time in seeing trends come into play."
The attention to detail and quality, service levels and house-keeping were also of course legendary. The stories of how hotel staff would look up guests' photographs and keep a record of their birthdays, personal preferences and likes and dislikes well before the age digital devices made all that easy, are the stuff of legend. They also constituted what created the gold dust at an Oberoi Hotel and led a guest to be awed at the personal touches. The overarching focus on customer satisfaction was eventually what drove the company.
"I was opening the Trident Gurgaon. It was twilight and it had just opened and he was walking with me and he said 'my only advice to you is don't compromise on anything because when you do then you are doing so at the experience of the guest'," Chopra said. "That stayed with me. In my view, he's the world's finest hotelier to date given what he pulled out of India which has been a developing country and perhaps only second to his father." Everything was imported for a while, including toilet paper, until the right ply-quality was available in India.
Today, the company has 33 hotels and 2 Nile Cruisers and is present in 7 countries but going global was one of Oberoi's key strategic initiatives. His focus avoided capital-heavy expansion in Western nations and instead zoomed in on the gateways to the West. Other Oberoi hotels include properties in Morocco, Mauritius and in the UAE. Foreign projects were also an area that Oberoi would spend a lot of time discussing with his nephew Arjun Oberoi, the chain's newly anointed boss and son of his late brother who will take charge in October.
The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh, is a stunning vista of a hotel located on almost 50-acres on the Red Sea in Egypt was started in 2001, featured professional-level deep-sea diving retreats and went on to win several global awards in hospitality. While assets such as his resorts displayed his value and, therefore, high margin approach to hospitality, indeed, in many ways Oberoi has served almost like an architectural designer of hotels as well.
In 2016, he threw his weight to renovate The Oberoi, New Delhi, and hired Adam Tihany, a New York-based designer and architect known for work on the Four Seasons in Dubai and the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. The hotel is now open features décor that is contemporary, while retaining its classic vibe and featuring artwork by Edwin Lutyens.
As Sarna goes on to say The Oberoi resisted commoditisation, which has been something most chains have succumbed to, and is hard to do in today's world.