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21st century fox

The Oberoi Gurgaon is a young man’s hotel, both in its daring and in its conception. It tells us something about Biki Oberoi and his quest to stay ahead of the game. Vir Sanghvi writes.

entertainment Updated: Apr 30, 2011 19:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi

When it comes to Gurgaon, the Oberois have a way of surprising me. Many years ago, I reluctantly accepted an invitation to visit the Trident in Gurgaon. It seemed an awfully long way to go to see a Trident, then, as now, the Oberoi Group’s second brand for its non-deluxe hotels.

In the event, I was completely wrong. The hotel was a revelation. Strikingly designed and beautifully structured, it had more in common with a Vilas property than with a Trident. I remember writing, at the time, that I could not work out why it was called a Trident and not an Oberoi. (Actually, the guest rooms are a little smaller than typical Oberoi rooms so there is a difference even if the public areas seem grand and luxurious.) I concluded that perhaps Biki Oberoi was reluctant to lend his name to a property that his group only managed. The Trident is owned by Sukhbir Singh Badal (yes, that Badal) who bought the land decades ago when nobody even knew where Gurgaon was.

It turned out that I was both right and wrong. I was right about the hotel. It went on to become a spectacular success, getting better room rates than the flagship Delhi Oberoi and ended up with the highest revpar (a hotel industry term for revenue per available room) in the National Capital Region (NCR) and perhaps in all of north India.

I was wrong about the reasons for the name though because last week, Biki unveiled a full-fledged Oberoi next to the Trident on land that is also owned by Sukhbir Singh Badal. It turns out that the first hotel was planned as a Trident because Biki was not sure that Gurgaon was ready for an Oberoi. Now that the area is booming, he had no such reservations and threw himself into the planning and construction of the new hotel.
The hotel’s public areas are housed in a gleaming glass jewel-box with glistening silver pillars, surrounded by tranquil cobalt-blue pools of water.

But how do you top the Trident, Gurgaon? How can you hope for room rates that are higher than the highest in the city? What could Biki do that was different or special?

Many people suspected that he would simply build a Vilas. After all, he had the land. He had the template. And each year, the Vilas properties appear on every list of the world’s greatest hotels. Why would he need to try something new? When the ads for the hotel appeared, featuring a forest and no buildings at all, many people took this as confirmation that the Oberois were now ready to recreate Wildflower Hall in the heart of Haryana.

I was not convinced by this argument. The Trident is already a bonsai Vilas. Having seen Biki’s work through the decades, it struck me as unlikely that he would build another, larger Vilas next to the Trident. But equally, I was not sure what he would do.

If you look at the city hotels that Biki has built or refurbished - Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi, Calcutta, etc. – they all follow a broadly similar pattern. They are elegant, luxury palaces in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the heyday of Asia’s Regent Group and not unlike the Four Seasons properties of today. This is not a bad model – especially as Biki has managed to put the Oberoi stamp on every property – but I did not see how he could try that approach in Gurgaon. There is already the elegant Oberoi in Delhi where the quality of the service and the excellence of the ambience make up for the small 1960s rooms. Somehow, I couldn’t see Biki building another Delhi Oberoi, albeit with larger rooms.

But nothing had prepared me for the Oberoi Gurgaon. It is quite simply, like no other Oberoi hotel ever built. The publicity will focus on the forest but do not be fooled, this is not a garden hotel. Instead, Biki has built his most stunning city hotel yet, dragging the Oberoi paradigm into the 21st century and creating a hotel that is modern, coolly spectacular and quite frankly, simply stunning.

Forget all those Regent-Four Seasons parallels, this hotel is difficult to categorise. At one level, it is a design hotel, packed with modern Indian art (not an Oberoi trademark till now) with interiors that are slightly stark but still unquestionably luxurious. At another level, it combines assertive modernity with a sense of peaceful timelessness. The hotel’s public areas are housed in a gleaming glass jewel-box with glistening silver pillars, surrounded by tranquil cobalt-blue pools of water. Of course, all the luxury trademarks are present. The rooms are huge – the entry-level rooms must be among the largest in Delhi. The bathrooms are enormous with flat-screen TVs, large shower stalls and stand-alone bathtubs. All the rooms that I saw had walk-in closets and there was Biki’s traditional attention to detail – every bedside table was large enough to keep a book and a bottle of water and also had a plug point in case you wanted to charge your phone while you slept. The in-rooms safes were positioned at just the right height so you did not have to crouch or bend as you do in so many other hotels. There were enough mirrors, some of them full-length and plenty of space to keep your things.

Food and beverage outlets mix the familiar with the new. The hotel’s most successful restaurant will be 361, which takes the 360 concept to the next level in terms of size and variety. The restaurant is larger than 360 and includes separate kitchens for Western, Chinese, Indian, teppanyaki and sushi-sashimi. I ate two meals there and though not everything worked (they have a problem with the teppanyaki section; the Sichuan food is so authentic that it takes the roof of your mouth off) overall standards were high.

The Gurgaon Oberoi is Biki Oberoi’s most modern and stunning city hotel yet
The break from tradition comes in the form of Amaranta, the Indian restaurant. The Oberois have struggled with Indian food for years. The Kwality-style Mughal Rooms gave way to Kandahar, which was essentially a concept stolen from ITC’s Dum Pukht and Bukhara restaurants. Then, Biki did some re-thinking. There is no Indian restaurant at the Delhi Oberoi – the space has been given over to a delicatessen. And at the re-opened Bombay Oberoi, the old Kandahar space is occupied by Ziya, a modern Indian restaurant opened in collaboration with Oberoi alumnus and double Michelin-starred chef, Vineet Bhatia.

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/HTEditImages/Images/rudehotel2.jpgAmaranta marks the Oberoi Group’s first attempt to do modern Indian without outside assistance. The hotel is pushing it as a seafood restaurant and certainly the decision to fly in fresh fish from Cochin, Vishakhapatnam and Calcutta every day is laudable. But I fear that the emphasis on seafood is detracting from the excellence of the rest of the cuisine. I went there twice. The first time I ate the fish dishes and thought the food was a little hit-and-miss.

Then I went back with my friend Gautam Anand of ITC. I like going to Indian restaurants with Gautam because he is so knowledgeable about the food though I have learnt to take his comments with a pinch of salt (according to Gautam, only ITC can do Indian food). On this occasion, I was startled to find that even Gautam liked the cuisine. He was gracious enough to meet the chefs and congratulate them. There are many terrific dishes on the menu and lots that I would go back for: a fabulous bacon rice, a great pork fry, wonderful crab cakes and a nice Kerala biryani. You know that an Indian restaurant has got it right when even somebody from ITC – with its formidable reputation for Indian cuisine – likes the food.

Nobody in the business seriously disputes that the Gurgaon Oberoi will do well. Its only competition is its own sister hotel, the Trident and the Gurgaon market is booming. So it is generally accepted that the hotel will function as a licence to print money for both Biki Oberoi and Sukhbir Singh Badal. Plus, the property has the added advantage of the Oberoi Group’s secret weapon, senior vice-president Kapil Chopra. I used to know Kapil when he looked after the rooms business of the Taj Man Singh Hotel some years ago and I have watched admiringly as his career has taken off. He is a general manager with a strategic vision who master-minded the rise of the Gurgaon Trident and I am sure that he will do the same with this property.

The real revelation for me, however, is not that the hotel will be a commercial success. From a hotel industry perspective, the message of the Gurgaon hotel is that the Oberoi Group is re-inventing its paradigm of luxury hospitality. You would expect the Oberois to have settled down to a comfortable formula by now. But the vision behind this hotel suggests that Biki Oberoi does not want to repeat himself.

Biki seems to want to create 21st century hotels that take the core values of Oberoi hospitality and re-interpret them in a more contemporary, more stylish way. This is a young man’s hotel, both in its daring and in its conception.

That it should be the brainchild of an 82-year-old hotelier tells us something about Biki and his constant quest to stay ahead of the game. Is it any wonder that he is a legend in the international hotel business?

- From HT Brunch, May 1

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