Sometime in the mid-1980s, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi pointed to the list of the world’s best hotels in Institutional Investor. “If you are going to build hotels,” he told his son Biki, “you should build one that gets on to that list.”
At that stage, the Rai Bahadur still ran the Oberoi chain. It was considered by many to be India’s finest hotel group; but equally, there were others who believed that the Taj Group, which was larger and had beaten the Oberois in Delhi and Bombay, deserved that distinction.
But in that era, nobody ever imagined that any Indian hotel would get on that list. The global hotel industry was still dominated by European and American hotels and brands. India was not even on anyone’s radar.
In fact, when Institutional Investor put Bangkok’s The Oriental on top of its list, this was such a shocking break from tradition that it made news all over the world and The Oriental still coasts along on the momentum generated during that decade.
So Biki was honest with his father. He would try his best, he said. But it was difficult for Indian hotels to get noticed.
Thirty years later, Biki Oberoi sits in the study of his farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi and recalls that conversation. “You know,” he says. “The Oberoi Bombay made it to the top of that list, after all.” He is modest about the accolades his group has earned in recent times – Udaivilas has been voted as the best hotel in the world on many lists, and each time a global list is published, the Oberoi group always finds place in the top ten.
But even he, with his slightly British air of modesty and understatement, can’t help being excited by the latest accolade. Travel + Leisure magazine picked The Oberoi as the best hotel brand in the world this year. The award was not arbitrary. It was voted by readers, most of whom live in America and picked the Oberoi over the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and every other luxury hotel brand in the world.
Biki, who is now 85 and has been everywhere and done everything, was sufficiently excited to hop on to a plane and fly to New York to receive the award. Later, at a party hosted by the Oberoi chain, he was lionised by the giants of the hotel business and by the press.
The consensus was that he is one of the world’s great hoteliers, a man who understands luxury so perfectly that when you see his name on a hotel, you know that it is among the world’s best properties. In an era where hotels have become faceless corporations or the playthings of rich men, Biki is a glorious reminder of a golden age when a great hotelier was the man who put his name on the door of his hotel and ran the chain himself to the most exacting standards.
In that sense, what Biki has achieved is more than just recognition for his group. It is recognition for India and for our country’s hotel industry in particular.
So how did Biki manage it? I think it was a combination of factors. For a start, he is the ultimate luxury customer himself. Till he was in his 40s, he took no active interest in his father’s company but travelled the world, staying at the finest hotels. While other Indian hoteliers were still looking to the West, he looked east and saw how such Asian companies as The Regent (run by his friend, Bob Burns) were changing the rules of hospitality.
When he began building his own hotels in the ’80s, he started with properties abroad (Lombok, Bali, Egypt etc) till he found his own style.
Then, he built a small hotel in Bhubaneswar (it is now a Trident) before building the magnificent The Oberoi in Bombay’s Nariman Point, next to the giant Sheraton-style hotel his father had opened in 1973.
The Oberoi, Bombay, opened in 1986 and quickly changed the rules of the game, with its large bay windows, its sun-filled rooms, its elegant atrium and its emphasis on world-class service. Biki followed that up with a transformation of Calcutta’s Grand Hotel and a revamp of the Delhi Oberoi.
Once he’d set the tone for city hotels, he decided to raise the benchmark for resorts. At an HT Luxury Conference (held at the Bombay Taj many years ago), he told the story of how he had to stay at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace (run by the Taj) while he was renovating a fort he had bought in Rajasthan. He was so disgusted by the experience (“the staff uniforms were crumpled, the towels were dirty, the dining room was dark and oppressive”) that he resolved to build his own hotel in Jaipur.
That experience led to the first Vilas, Rajvilas, and then to Udaivilas, Wildflower Hall, Amarvilas and Vanyavilas. The Vilas properties were predicated on the assumption that guests would pay four times the rates they were paying for such hotels as the Rambagh. Most of his contemporaries thought he was mad. But it was Biki’s company and he risked it on that grand gamble.
As we know today, the gamble paid off. He built hotels that regularly top every list of the world’s great resorts. And he got the rates that nobody thought he would. The Taj was forced to revamp its own palace hotels (and now charges similar rates) and everyone benefitted.
So, yes, Biki became one of the world’s greatest hoteliers because he had global experience of luxury, an individual vision and was willing to take risks.
But I think there’s more to it than that. There is also his own flair. He is an instinctive hotelier. He can walk into a hotel room and tell you what’s wrong with it. He can enter a lobby and tell you how good or bad a hotel is. Decades ago, when he had an office in the Delhi Oberoi, he would stand behind a pillar and watch how guests were received in the lobby. If the receptionist was not warm or efficient or the welcome was sloppily handled, he knew that the guest had been lost forever.
It is this instinctive grasp of hoteliering that makes rooms at Oberoi hotels so comfortable. There will always be enough light to read in bed. The bedside table will always have enough space for a bottle of water, a pair of spectacles, a book and perhaps a few medicines. There will never be a shortage of plug points and you won’t have to look to find them. The cupboard will have the right number of hangers and enough space for your clothes. The room-service menu will always allow you a choice of cuisines. No matter who you call (housekeeping, the operator, the bell captain, etc.) the phone will never ring more than three times before it is answered.
So, to vision, style and risk-taking, add one more attribute: instinct.
And there is a fourth factor: adaptability. By the beginning of this century, we thought we knew Biki’s style: magnificent Vilas properties and smart city hotels. So when the Oberoi Gurgaon was due to open, people expected a giant Vilas, a more extravagant version of the Trident that stood next to it.
Instead, he built a modern, art-filled hotel with massive rooms and a huge central restaurant (361 Degrees) that was unlike anything the Oberois had ever built before.
Obviously, Biki had been re-inventing his idea of the perfect hotel and today, the Gurgaon hotel has among the highest room-rates in India of any city hotel; proof, if any were needed, that he has his finger on the pulse of the consumer.
Listening to Biki talk about hotels as the sun sets over his farmhouse, I am astonished by how much he is still willing to adapt to the changing market. He talks about the challenge to hotels posed by the Airbnb model, about whether the citizenM style of hotel will impact the industry, and how digital marketing will now be an important determinant of success or failure in the hotel business.
I ask him about the Delhi Oberoi, built in 1965 with tiny InterContinental-style rooms. Years ago he had told me he dreamt of blowing it up and building a grand new hotel on the spot. He has since moderated that view but continues to be obsessed with the idea of completely revamping it so that it has larger rooms and huge bathrooms, even if this means losing up to a third of its number of rooms.
Will he finally do it?
Yes, he says. Within the next year. And it will be the best hotel in Delhi.
And when Biki Oberoi says he will build the best, he always means it.
From HT Brunch, October 11
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch