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Biki Oberoi has surprised us once again

The story of the Delhi Oberoi is really the story of India’s luxury hotel sector.

By now most of us know about Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi who started out as an employee of a Shimla hotel in the Raj era and worked his way up to buying the hotel. Then, in the 1940s, when Calcutta’s venerable Grand Hotel was in trouble, he took that over. By the time the 1960s came along, the Oberoi chain was well established.


But the Rai Bahadur had a dream. He wanted to build a modern, American-style hotel with 24-hour room service, a multiplicity of restaurants and facilities that were the equal of, say, the Hilton chain’s many outposts all over the world. He procured the land to build the hotel right next to the Delhi Golf Club, got Piloo Mody, the architect-politician, to design it and construction began in the early 1960s.


   But the hotel could not be completed because the Oberois did not have the foreign exchange required to import many of its fittings. The Rai Bahadur flew to Washington and asked his friend B K Nehru, then India’s ambassador to the US, if he had any solutions to suggest. B K Nehru told him that the US Exim Bank would fund the project if the Oberois got an American partner. So the Rai Bahadur partnered with InterContinental Hotels (then owned by Pan Am, the American airline), got the financing and finally in 1965, opened his dream hotel as the Oberoi InterContinental.


   As the Rai Bahadur had intended, the new hotel changed all the rules. It was super smooth and super sophisticated. There was a grand restaurant called the Taj, a nightclub called Café Chinois that served Chinese food, a rooftop bar called The Skylark, a North Indian restaurant called The Moghul Room and not one but two coffee shops: one off the lobby and another next to the pool.


   Many of the things we now take for granted – all-day dining, express laundry, multi-cuisine restaurants, swimming pools, health clubs etc. – were not considered essential till the Oberoi InterContinental opened. In that era, for instance, The Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay had only a dining room and a French restaurant. It had no coffee shop, no 24-hour-room service and no swimming pool.


   Though the hotel was called Oberoi InterContinental, it was largely managed by the Oberoi group. Its success meant a) that foreign hotel chains learnt that Indians didn’t need their expertise which is why India is still the one Asian country with its own world-class hotel industry and b) that other hotels would have to up their game to compete with the standards the Oberoi had set. The Ashoka, the Oberoi’s only real rival, struggled to keep up and then gave up the fight once it was fully nationalised (till then, the government had jointly owned it with various maharajas). The Taj, in Bombay, built a new modern wing, using the same interior decorator (Dale Keller) as the Oberoi and even tied up with InterContinental for a branding.


   The Oberoi InterContinental had been structured to be inclusive, so if you could not afford to go to Café Chinois (which had dancing and a live band), you could still go to Café Expresso, its coffee shop, for an after-dinner coffee. The hotel’s appeal cut across the entire Delhi middle class, taking in all age groups. Often the parents went for a business lunch to The Taj but their college-going children could be found eating ice cream, late at night, at Café Expresso. Consequently, from the late ’60s onwards, the Oberoi became – for the Delhi upper middle class – an iconic property. For many people, it defined what a deluxe hotel should be.


   Which is not to say that the hotel did not have its ups and downs. By the late 1970s, a dozen years after it had opened, the Oberoi InterContinental had begun to look a little tired and the management had become smug with success. It was at that stage that the Taj opened its Delhi property on Mansingh Road and (mainly because of the food) managed to become Delhi’s number one hotel.


   The Oberoi limped along for a while and only recovered when Biki Oberoi, the Rai Bahadur’s son took charge of the company. Biki was smart enough to recognise that the Hilton-InterContinental model of hoteliering had now receded into second-ratedness after the growth of such luxury companies as Regent and Four Seasons. Biki pushed the Oberoi group to benchmark itself against the world’s great luxury chains.


   In the process, he transformed the old Oberoi InterContinental into something newer, more contemporary and more luxurious: The Oberoi, New Delhi.


"Biki closed the hotel, remodelled it and reopened it as the hotel of his dreams on January 1, this year."

   But while he was able to transform the public areas and introduce higher standards of refinement and elegance, he was still stuck with a problem: the small rooms.


   The great global luxury chains offered guests rooms that were at least a third bigger than room sizes had been in the ’60s. If the Oberoi was to be the luxury hotel of Biki’s dreams then it had to have larger rooms.


   The only way Biki could do this was by reducing the hotel’s room inventory and combining rooms. Commercially, this was not the shrewdest strategy. The Oberoi got very high rates for its 283 rooms. To reinvent The Oberoi as Biki’s dream hotel, they would have to give up over 60 rooms just to create 220 large new rooms. Would these new rooms command enough of a premium to make up for the loss of revenue from 63 rooms? Moreover, the hotel would have to be shut for nearly two years while renovations took place. Was it worth forgoing the revenues from the period (over 100 crores of profits) while the hotel was closed?


   One of the advantages of having your name on the door is that you can take chances. And so, Biki closed the hotel, remodelled it and reopened it as the hotel of his dreams on January 1, this year.


   The first thing to be said about this version of The Oberoi is that it is still recognisably the hotel of old. Nobody who wanders in here will be disoriented or think that they are in an unfamiliar space. The second is that nearly everything has been improved. I once called Threesixty° the drawing room of Delhi. Well, it now looks even more than like a drawing room. It is warmer, more casual and has better food. The banquets area has been opened up but the real innovation is a beautiful courtyard space. The old pool which seemed like a bit of a waste once the new one opened at the rear of the hotel has now been turned into a stunning water body.


   Of the new public spaces, everyone likes the lobby but opinions are divided over the screen near the entrance.  The Indian restaurant is relaxed and with Alfred Prasad (who won a Michelin star at London’s Tamarind) consulting, the menu offers traditional flavours in innovative dishes. The rooftop bar is younger than most Oberoi bars and perhaps, therefore, is a runaway success. The Chinese restaurant (which I have written about before) is helmed by Andrew Wong from London and seems to have successfully won over even those regulars who liked the terrible food at Taipan, its predecessor.


   The real stars though are the rooms and the suites. The superior rooms, at 50 square metres, are the largest in Delhi and are designed by Adam Tihany in a style that is cutting edge but still comfortable.


   So, has Biki’s gamble paid off? In purely aesthetic terms: yes, without a doubt. He has achieved the impossible, taking the hotel of his father’s dreams and turning it into the hotel of his own dream.


   In commercial terms? Well, it is too early to be sure but I reckon the Oberoi will get the highest rates in Delhi this season and revenues at its restaurants have crossed all previous records.


   It helps also that Biki can depend on the best team in the business. His son Vikram and his nephew Arjun are instinctive hoteliers. They grew up understanding excellence and are never satisfied with anything less. The renovation was overseen by Jay Rathore who ran the hotel for a decade before the refit and embodies the Oberoi ethos of discreet luxury. He must also be the hardest working general manager in India. The hotel manager, Udiksha Panshikar, was one of the moving spirits behind the Mumbai Oberoi and here too, she is the life and soul of the hotel. (Remember the name; she is the star of her generation.) And chef Rohit Gambhir is understated but first rate.


   Who would have thought that a hotel that set the standards for the 1960s would do that all over again in 2018?


   None of us did.


   But Biki Oberoi has surprised us once again.


Posted On: 27 Jan 2018 04:43 PM
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