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The end of an era

A month ago, I was in Mumbai for an event. The event was in Parel, in the crowded midtown area of the city.

Though it was not the most convenient option, I opted to stay some distance away at The Oberoi, at the tip of Nariman Point.

Though this involved more time waiting in traffic jams than I would have liked, I did not once regret that decision during the four days that I was in Mumbai. The reason was simple enough. The Oberoi is, quite simply, the best hotel in Mumbai.


    I did not know then that this would be my last stay in an Oberoi Hotel when PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi was chairman of the company.


   When Biki stepped down a week ago, I should not have been surprised. He is, after all, 93 years old. But, like nearly everybody else with some experience of Oberoi hotels, I always thought he would go on forever.


   Funnily enough, it was at the Mumbai Oberoi that I first met Biki Oberoi. It was the autumn of 1986 and he had just opened the hotel. At that stage, like many people from Mumbai, I was not a great Oberoi fan. For us, the Oberois represented Delhi while the Taj was Mumbai and represented every other place in India south of the Vindhyas.


   I admired the Oberois for setting up India’s first modern hotel, the Oberoi Intercontinental in Delhi in 1965 (it is now called The Oberoi) but I was not over impressed by the Mumbai property, the Oberoi Sheraton (now the Trident), and reckoned that it would be a long time before the Oberois could beat the Taj.


   That meeting in 1986 convinced me that I was wrong. Till that point, the Oberois had run competent 1960s/1970s Intercontinental-Sheraton style hotels but they had no grand hotels like the old Taj in Mumbai or the Rajasthan palaces that the Taj managed. I suspected that Biki recognised that. And he was determined to change the character of the company and its hotels.


   The Mumbai Oberoi, with all of its restrained elegance, was the first step in that direction. And Biki said he intended to do more: to restore the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata to its former glory; to reinvent the other city hotels and to be adventurous with food. Till that point, it wasn’t just Oberoi city hotels that were boring: most Indian five-star hotels were plush without being luxurious. The old Sheraton-Hilton model still predominated.


   Biki, who spent the first 40 years of his life travelling the world in style, (he will be the first to admit that he did not do a lot of work till he reached early middle age), understood luxury much better than most hoteliers. He knew a) that the old Hilton model was being swept aside by the Four Seasons-type luxury hotels and b) that Indian hotel companies were making a mistake by looking to America for inspiration. The real action was in Asia where a new kind of hospitality was developing and companies like Regent were changing all the rules.


   In the years that followed, I watched as Biki transformed the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata and took revenge on the Taj for the humiliation of 1978 when the newly opened Delhi Taj had polished off the Oberoi Intercontinental. The redone Oberoi New Delhi was a triumph that recaptured the top spot in the city. (And that's even before the total renovation of a few years ago.) The Oberois spotted the Gurgaon opportunity before anyone else, first with the Trident and then with a full-fledged Oberoi. The Bangalore hotel set new standards for that city.


"Way back in 1986, while other hoteliers measured themselves against their competitors in India, Biki benchmarked the Oberoi chain against the finest in the world."

   I mention the city hotels at length because all too often we talk about Biki’s achievements in terms of the Vilas hotels and forget that he also revolutionized the way hotels in India’s cities are built and run.


   As for the Vilas properties, I think it has all been said already, sometimes by Biki himself. I watched mortified while moderating a session with Biki at the first Hindustan Times Luxury Conference, as he told the story of buying an old fort near Jaipur. The renovations required him to spend a lot of time in Jaipur and he stayed at what was supposed to be the city’s best hotel (which he did not name, but which was clearly the Taj-run Rambagh Palace). It was so terrible, he said, that he began to take his own sheets, his own towels and eventually, his own toilet paper. That experience convinced him that Jaipur needed a good hotel. And so, he built Rajvilas.


   What he did not say was that he did not stop at Rajvilas. He ended up building the most luxurious resorts India had ever seen: Rajvilas was followed by Udaivilas in Udaipur, Wildflower Hall in Mashobra, Amarvilas in Agra, Vanyavilas in Ranthambore, and Sukhvilas in Chandigarh. They rewrote the rules of hoteliering in India because they were not just super-luxurious but also super-tasteful, and were easily the equals of the best resort hotels anywhere in the world. Within months of opening, each hotel began to turn up on lists of the world’s best hotels.


   I was not surprised. I had realised, way back in 1986, that while other hoteliers measured themselves against their competitors in India, Biki benchmarked the Oberoi chain against the finest in the world. When you talk to global hoteliers about the hospitality scene in India it is clear that, so far as they are concerned, there are Indian hoteliers and then there is Biki Oberoi. His name is mentioned with the kind of awe reserved for such giants of the profession as George Rafael, Isadore Sharp, Bob Burns or Adrian Zecha.


   It is a measure of Biki’s single-minded devotion to his hotels that he never took his eye off the ball. He would read every guest comment card and if the negative comments seemed justified, he would haul up his General Managers and write to guests to offer apologies or make-good stays.


   All top hoteliers have to be company executives as well. There is a bottom-line to look after and shareholders to be satisfied. East India Hotels, the company that owns the Oberoi group, is publicly listed. So Biki had to calculate his risks and ensure that he did not disappoint his investors. And yet, he took incredible risks. He closed down the Delhi Oberoi for two years and spent hundreds of crores on re-building it from inside. I can think of nobody else who would shut down a profitable property for that long only because he believed that a hotel that opened in 1965 did not fit in with his vision of Oberoi Hotels.


   Nor has anyone else taken anything like the chance he took with the Vilases. The properties would only make money if guests paid rates that were higher than had ever been charged in India. Otherwise they would drag the company down to bankruptcy. But Biki got those rates, first from foreign visitors and then, during the pandemic, from Indian guests who got hooked on the Oberoi conception of luxury.


   The Oberoi group is in safe hands. Biki’s low profile nephew Arjun, who takes over as executive chairman, has spent decades conceiving of and building new hotels. Within the company, he is well-respected and it is said that he knows every brick of every hotel he has built. And Biki’s son, the sharp but self-effacing Vikram, who continues as CEO, has his father’s flair for luxury with an approach that is even more staff and guest-focussed than Biki’s.


   So the Oberois will go from strength to strength. But I will miss Biki. And I do hope he continues to contribute to the company he reinvented.




  • Shabir Mustafa 16 May 2022

    Mr.Vir Sanghvi ji, Undoubtedly Mr.PRS OBEROI JI ( BIKI SAHEB) is one of the blessings gifted by ALLAH, to the world especially to India and to us ( citizens of india particularly) Mr.Vir ji , Thanks for writing such a beautiful article on MR.BIKI SAHEB ( GOD BLESS HIM WITH LONG HEALTHY AND LIFE FILLED WITH JOYS) , Mr.Vir ji, I think you forgot to write about MR.BIKI JI,,as a person, HE is very kind noble polished decent caring and above all very generous good human being.

Posted On: 13 May 2022 11:25 AM
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