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On November 26, 2008, Biki Oberoi sat at Mumbai’s Taj Land’s End watching a terrifying report on TV. His hotels in south Mumbai were on fire. The Oberoi Towers and The Oberoi Trident were under terrorist attack. When, after the three-day seige, he’d walked into the hotels to assess the damage and loss in life, he was in shock. “I did not know what to do. I was traumatised.” Yet within a month, the Trident was operational and in the next fourteen months, the Oberoi Towers had opened anew, surpassing its previous avatar in every measure. It wasn’t the first time that Biki Oberoi, almost 80 at the time, had been confronted with disaster. Neither was it the last instance for him to emerge eminently in the lead.
On 14th November 2023, Prithvi Raj Singh or “Biki” Oberoi, Executive Chairman of the Oberoi Group of Hotels passed away at 94. Oberoi’s working career, spanning nearly 65 years, testifies to a legacy of one of the most well-regarded hotel chains in the world.
No detail too small:
Known as much for his sense of style as for his ability to see things through, PRS Oberoi, was most recognised for his eye for detail. A former employee recalls how in 2017 he’d walked into Oberoi’s suite at The Oberoi, Nariman Point, Mumbai, to find the Executive Chairman considering a dozen sets of cutlery for the hotel. An array had been inspected and eleven were shortlisted. Over the next few days, as he ordered his meals in his suite, Oberoi would carefully pick up cutlery from one set at a time, noting each for feel, aesthetic and ease of use. Form and function were of equal importance to the grand Hotelier, who, known for his precision, wouldn’t let a serviette slip by, without an approval. “The napkin had to be of a certain shade, a soft yet effective fabric and the right weight or grams per square meter” says a former manager. The cutlery was put through similar scrutiny, as were other things - from the craft of carpet-making or the cut of mutton, to the cast of an architectural design, Biki Oberoi was known to be informed on all.
Such grasp over the hotel and hospitality industry may well have begun in 1939, when, as a ten-year old boy, PRS Oberoi trooped into a building with 500 rooms. This would now be his home. The Grande Dame of Chowringhee, a magnificent neoclassical structure in Calcutta city, had just been leased to his father, Mohan Singh Oberoi, who had bid to bring it back to business. Mohan Singh moved in to oversee a makeover, and his family followed suit. The young Biki, though afraid to be in such a large space, nonetheless watched and listened, as his father commandeered an overhaul of the structure– from ripping out the plumbing, redesigning spaces, renovating the structure, recalling the staff, to refurbishing the rooms and polishing the silver. No detail was too small to be overlooked; no task too daunting to be left undone. It was perhaps the boy’s first reckoning, of what would become a core value of the Oberoi code – No effort is too big. No detail too small. Biki would soon leave to study at boarding school in Darjeeling, but ‘home’ for him, from now on, would be the roll and spread of the Oberoi’s growing hotel chain, and its effort towards impeccable hospitality.
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Hard, meticulous work and long hours of attention underlay such presentation. Biki’s father, Mohan Singh Oberoi, had begun as a clerk for coal purchases at the Cecil in Simla. He’d worked his way up on effort and enterprise to own his first hotel, the Clarkes in Simla. Mohan Singh had his instinct to guide him, and his passion.
Passion ran in Biki’s veins as well, so when the young Oberoi was sent to study Chartered Accountancy in the UK, with hope that it would help the business, he found he was bored. He quit and went instead to France and Switzerland to study hospitality. On his return in 1955, the Oberoi Grand was put in his keeping. ‘Biki-baba’, now 26, was soon seeped into running the finest hotel in the east of India. He would learn that the flash and lavish of his occupation takes immense tact, patience and persistence to run. From managing labour unions to guests, this was the beginning of the spectrum of his training. Hotels, akin to municipalities he learnt, involve housing, food, water, sanitation, security, transport, and more. His professional journey would span nearly seven decades and six countries.
While he monitored The Grand in Calcutta, Biki was assigned four hotels in Pakistan, as part of the Associated Hotels of India take-over by Mohan Singh Oberoi. They were old, and Biki Oberoi set out to renovate them. His near-obsessive attention to detail swung into action. “The Devil is in the detail,” Biki Oberoi said often. Additionally, the Oberoi group was building its first hotel from scratch, in Delhi. Funds were required, and Biki Oberoi was involved in every process of the venture.
When it opened in 1965, The Oberoi Intercontinental in Delhi was a first in many respects in the country – the first to offer room service, the first with a 24-hour coffee shop, the first with round-the-clock laundry service, the first with air conditioning, among other amenities that were introduced here. Clearly Biki Oberoi’s exposure abroad had come into play. For international travellers it became the address in town. The Beatles were four of its many celebrity clients. Biki Oberoi’s quest was to make the Oberoi chain international – not just in principle but in presence. The next two decades were a period of expansion.
As Joint Managing Director of East India Hotels, Biki Oberoi contributed in negotiating, acquiring, consolidating and building hotels to add to the Oberoi chain. First it was the Soaltee in Nepal, in 1969; then Mena House in Egypt, in 1971. The Lanka Oberoi was added soon after, followed by Damman in the Middle East and Windsor on another continent, in Melbourne, in 1980. The last was met with wonder and silence, when unveiled. The Oberoi group had recreated or re-acquired every element of the old Victorian structure, as close to the original as possible - from furniture to black marble fireplaces, from tiles to the exact pigment and colour of the missing stained glass – sourcing as well as commissioning bespoke fabrication, wherever required. The residents of the city, who had taken to the streets to oppose the sale of their city’s heritage to an Indian enterprise, were astounded.
Back in India, Biki Oberoi was thrust into the limelight in 1986, when he unveiled the new Oberoi in Mumbai. At a cost of 650 million rupees, a tag hitherto unheard of for a hotel in India, Biki pushed the definition of hospitality, service and systems. Smaller than the Oberoi Sheraton, the new Oberoi was classier in every way, a quantum leap ahead in hospitality. The move was towards smart, modern hotels and Biki Oberoi, as Managing Director of the company, was key to this shift.
Further, his creation of the Oberoi Vilas hotels placed India firmly on the map of best hotels, earning him recognition as one of the great pioneers of tourism in Asia. Raj Vilas, the first of the Vilas properties, opened in Jaipur in 1998, followed by others in Udaipur, Ranthambhor, Agra, Wildflower Hall (and the most recent Sukh Vilas in Chandigarh). The Vilas properties were the culmination of the Oberoi philosophy in design, service and systems, in every possible way. They were also the most expensive in tariff. Biki Oberoi remained unfazed, confident that guests would see value in his concept. They did. So did other hoteliers and consortiums. Accolades flowed in and the Vilases continue to feature regularly on the lists of top hotels of the world.
I recall Biki Oberoi most vividly at the newly furbished Oberoi in New Delhi, in 2018. The hotel had opened after 21 months of refurbishment, boasting, among other elements, of a hi-tech air purification system. He sat in the lobby, a cane leaning on one side, listening to the three-member orchestra playing close by. There was no clamour around him, just an attentive, quiet sophistication. Quite like the hotels of his name chain.
For those who knew him closely, Biki Oberoi left little to chance in realising, maintaining and offering to his guests, what he regarded as the finest in hospitality. He refused, time and again, to compromise. If a fourth of the rooms of the Delhi Oberoi had to be knocked down to make the other rooms more spacious, it was done. He leaned in to shut the hotel during remodelling, rather than proceed floor by floor, so that guests would not be subjected to drilling and banging. Compliment him on his hotels and he would ask “tell me what’s wrong!” Hospitality demands both efficiency and beauty. He was both the aesthete and the modernizer, ordering sophisticated systems to keep his hotels ahead of their need and times. Bad profit, he said, is unsustainable profit. A snitch, and the whole lot of merchandise - from pens to rolls of carpets to containers of condiments – all would duly and promptly be returned to the vendor. Nothing could slip past the ever vigilant gaze, and intent, of the man. “I do not want to be the biggest,” he famously said of his endeavour, “but the best.”
With 32 hotels in all, the Oberoi is the third largest chain of hotels in India. It is also amongst the most awarded.
Vandana Kohli is an author, entrepreneur and filmmaker