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The legacy of Biki Oberoi

Prithvi Raj Singh aka Biki Oberoi liked to say that he did no work till he was 32.

It was true. As the son of MS Oberoi, then India’s most successful hotelier, Biki could live the life of the global playboy, staying at the world’s best hotels, eating at the world’s best restaurants, scheduling fittings with his tailor on Savile Row and becoming friends with what was then called the global jet set.


Biki liked talking about those early years of pleasure and indulgence because they contrasted with how he spent the next 50 years: building some of the world’s finest hotels, setting new standards for the hospitality industry, and creating a great luxury-hotel brand. A man who had once done no work at all, now worked late into the night, striving to reach the levels of perfection that he wanted his hotels to embody.


   But there was also a second reason. Biki liked to point out that he could not have achieved everything he did in the next 50 years, if he had not been an international pleasure-seeker first. It was those travels and experiences, he said, that taught him what luxury is. It was only because he had sampled the best that the world had to offer, that he was able to benchmark the hotels he built against the highest international standards.


   When his hotels began to top lists of the world’s best, leaving the great hotels of Europe and America behind, he treated their success as a vindication of the luxury education that his youth had given him.


   It was a nice story and largely accurate. Biki, who died on Tuesday, aged 94, was (except perhaps for the odd maharaja) the only Indian member of the global jet set for many years. But it wasn’t all fun and holidays. His father, a self-made man who had risen from being a clerk at a hotel to becoming India’s preeminent hotelier, was always conscious that he needed members of his family to keep him abreast of global trends and the directions in which the luxury business was headed.


   Many of Biki’s travels were jointly planned by father and son. It was, for instance, the senior Oberoi’s idea that Biki visit the Far East in the 1950s, to check on how the countries of that region were faring. This was, Biki would later recall, a time when Rangoon and Calcutta were the great cities of the East. He came back and told his father that the world was changing: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and the rest were marching swiftly into the future. There would be a time when we would laugh at the notion that Calcutta and Rangoon were greater cities than, say, Tokyo, he said.


   MS Oberoi always aimed high. In the 1960s and ’70s, which were his best years, the world was dominated by such American hotel chains as Hilton, Sheraton and Intercontinental. Oberoi collaborated with Sheraton and Intercontinental to build hotels in Delhi and Mumbai. Both hotels were enormously successful, but by the time Biki threw himself into the business in the 1980s, he realised that luxury had moved beyond these brands.


   He pushed the Oberoi group to aim higher, build classier hotels. In 1986, he opened a more luxurious hotel at Mumbai’s Nariman Point, next to the behemoth his father had built. He decided he did not need any international validation and called it simply: The Oberoi.


 "His commitment to quality was absolute. No other hotelier would have closed down and completely refurbished the Oberoi Delhi over two years, forfeiting revenues."

   When that hotel was a success, he embarked on what would become his life’s work: reinventing the Oberoi chain. While MS Oberoi had looked to the West for inspiration, Biki looked East. Long before the term “Asian hospitality” had become a hotel cliché, Biki recognised that Asian hotels such as the Regent chain and Hong Kong’s Mandarin were taking city hotels beyond the Hilton-Sheraton model.


   In 1988, he renovated Calcutta’s Oberoi Grand to combine Raj heritage with Asian luxury. The Oberoi’s new Bangalore hotel had the air of a resort in the heart of the city. And the old Oberoi Intercontinental in Delhi became simply The Oberoi after a substantial upgrade.


   The Oberois had rarely built resorts, regarding them as risky investments. Not only did Biki reverse that policy, he multiplied the risks. Jaipur’s Rajvilas, which opened in 1997, was, room for room, the most expensive resort hotel ever built in India. It would only work if Biki persuaded guests to pay rates that were double that at, say, the Fort Aguada in Goa, then India’s top resort.


   While the industry debated whether he had risked the whole company by investing so much on a bet, Biki went ahead and planned new Vilas hotels, in Udaipur, Agra, Ranthambore, Mashobra.


   The only way the Oberoi group — which had risked its future on these resorts — could have survived was if well-heeled foreign travellers who treated India as a cheap destination agreed to pay top dollar. Fortunately, the first Vilas was wonderful. The tourists came. Rates shot up. And the Oberoi group was not just safe, it was flush with profits. Within a year or so, the Vilas properties began dominating lists of the world’s best hotels.


   And while the Vilas hotels marked such a breakthrough for Indian hospitality that they may end up being regarded as Biki’s legacy, it is worth remembering that he did so much more: the luxurious Indian city hotel is his creation. You can always tell his style from the large rooms, the elegant but comfortable furniture, some natural element such as gardens or a sea view, and the perfect lighting.


   His commitment to quality was absolute. No other hotelier would have closed down and completely refurbished the Oberoi Delhi over two years, forfeiting revenues. It did not matter to him that the hotel was already profitable. (In fact, he even reduced the number of rooms in the renovation, so that each was larger.) What mattered was that it had to be a hotel he was proud of.


   Biki stepped down as executive chairman on health grounds over a year ago, but even before the formal handover, the group had been run by his nephew Arjun Oberoi and his son Vikram Oberoi. They not only steered it through the pandemic years but have managed to attract a far higher proportion of Indian guests, at even higher rates, to the Vilas hotels.


   So Biki’s legacy at the Oberoi group is safe. And the larger legacy — he turned Indian hotels into among the best in the world — benefits every hotelier, each guest, and India itself.


   Of few people can it be said that they transformed an entire industry. Biki Oberoi was one of them.



Posted On: 14 Nov 2023 05:15 PM
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