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Out of the storm

india Updated: Apr 24, 2010 16:57 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

OberoiThese days, many Indians are treated as global successes, able to compete with the world’s finest. Few however, get to the stage where they are regarded as international legends within their own industries. And fewer still create global brands.

Biki Oberoi is that rare exception, an Indian who is highly regarded by nearly everybody in the business. Ask a top hotelier anywhere in the world if he has heard of the Oberoi chain, and the chances are that not only will he know the company but he will also tell you about its charismatic head. And though the hotel business is dominated by global chains with massive resources (the Ritz-Carltons, Four Seasons, Starwoods and Mandarin Orientals), Biki has carved out an extraordinary reputation for the Oberois. His hotels regularly appear on lists of the world’s best hotels; often one of his properties tops the list and one year, he had three hotels in the top six.

I was in Bombay to interview Biki for my Tycoons TV show. We had spent a year negotiating a date before settling on the 17th of April. By then, Biki had decided that he would re-open the Bombay Oberoi – closed after the horrific 26/11 attacks – on the 24th of April. He asked if he could do the interview in Bombay and invited me to be the first guest at the renovated, restored Oberoi, a week before it threw its doors open to the public.

I always enjoy meeting Biki. More than any hotelier I have met, anywhere in the world, he lives, eats, breathes and sleeps the hotel business. Many great hoteliers – Biki’s father or Ajit Kerkar, for instance – are essentially entrepreneurs who, one suspects, would have succeeded in any business. But it is hard to see Biki doing anything else. Unlike his father who was an astute businessman, Biki is basically a hotelier. He is not that astute in business terms and his passion for hoteliering has often led him to take risks that no shrewd businessman ever would.

The Bombay Oberoi is one such example. His father built the Oberoi Sheraton at Nariman Point (it opened in 1973) but by the late Seventies when Biki was fully involved in the business (till then, he had spent his time having fun), he had the sense that it was already out of date. The great American chains (the Hiltons, the Sheratons and the Intercontinentals) had colonised the world in the Sixties and the Seventies. But by the end of the Seventies, the action had shifted to the East. The great advances in hoteliering were taking place in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur but Indian hoteliers were still looking to New York and Los Angeles. Only Biki had the vision to visit the Regent in Hong Kong and to note that the size of the bathrooms had suddenly exploded. He sought out Bob Burns who ran the Regent chain and spoke to him to understand what was going on.

His Eastern adventures led him to build his own hotel next to his father’s (by now, it was called The Oberoi Towers) and he named it simply The Oberoi. When it opened in 1986, it was a revelation and, as he gleefully recalls “it took the pants off the Taj.” (The Taj renovated, as a consequence of the competition from the Oberoi.) It easily marked the end of the old Hilton-Sheraton style of hoteliering in India. Within the next few years, he had renovated the group’s hotels in Calcutta and Delhi and built a new property in Bangalore, all in the new style. Inevitably, others copied the innovations.

But Bombay was the first of the new-style Oberoi hotels and I asked him how he felt when he saw it in flames on 26/11. By some coincidence, Biki was in Bombay on that day. He was attending a function at the Taj Land’s End when the news broke and he spent the night there. (“They gave me a very good butler” he notes with professional interest.)

As the mayhem continued, he was nearly in tears. “I thought we had lost both hotels,” he says. “And the Oberoi was a hotel that I had virtually built myself so it was a very wrenching time.” When the terrorists were killed and the hotel returned to the Oberois, the damage to the Trident (as the Oberoi Towers had now become) was minimal and Biki opened it again within a month. But the Oberoi was in bad shape and required much more work.

Characteristically, Biki saw this as an opportunity. Though he does not say this himself, I think he was conscious that the battle was not just between him and the Taj any longer. An excellent new Four Seasons had opened in Worli, halfway between the Oberoi and the suburban hotels. Though Biki had rashly challenged the Four Seasons to beat the Oberoi (in an interview to Brunch), it was clear that he had not won that battle as decisively as he had hoped. Newer hotels have advantages that hotels which opened in 1986 cannot match – better technology, larger room size, younger staff etc.The chance to redo the Oberoi gave him an opportunity to rework his vision for the new era. He wanted to recreate the hotel so that it seemed contemporary in the 21st century.

It is hard to judge a hotel when you are the only outside guest (Biki and other Oberoi executives were also staying there) and the carpenters are still at work but I will stick my neck out and say that Biki has pulled it off more successfully than anyone could have dared hope.It is still recognisably the same hotel – he gave the property its essential character himself, so he is not about to tinker with its soul – but like all great renovations, this one works because the changes (which are massive and complex) have been implemented so subtly that you hardly notice them.

When you start asking questions, then the full extent of the changes become clear. Why is the hotel so quiet and so free of the sounds of Nariman Point? They’ve double-glazed the windows and soundproofed the property. Why do the redone executive suites seem so much roomier than you remember? Because they are not the old executive suites. Biki has combined rooms and created new suites (the total number of keys has come down and the proportion of suites to rooms has dramatically altered).Why is the lobby airier? They’ve pulled out some of the seating, eliminated the check-in counter (it is a desk now), reduced the number of covers in the coffee shop (whoops! “all day dining restaurant”) and changed its name from Tiffin to Fenix. The coffee lounge in the lobby, always a nightmare, service-wise, now has fewer seats, its own service area (rather than requiring waiters to jog across from the coffee shop) and is called The Champagne Lounge with twelve different champagnes including Dom Perignon by the glass.

The food too is vastly improved. Before the attacks, the cuisine was so-so but now room service is much better. Vetro is more like Delhi’s Travertino (a good thing; and they’ve stolen the Travertino chef) and there’s a great new restaurant named Ziya but apparently that’s not out of any desire to pay homage to dead and deposed Pakistani and Bangladeshi dictators. Ziya is the brainchild of Liam Lambert, the new chief executive of the group. When Liam was with Mandarin Oriental, he took an enormous risk by opening an Indian restaurant at the group’s Geneva hotel (the old Hotel du Rhone). Against the odds, it became a huge success. That restaurant was helmed by Vineet Bhatia, Britain’s best-known Indian chef.

Vineet is a former Oberoi chef, though when he ran Kandahar in the early 1990s Biki never met him. (Oddly enough, Biki says he did know Atul Kochhar, another former Oberoi chef who has found fame in London. This mystified Vineet who asked: “But if you could know the night chef at the coffee shop, then how come you never knew me?” But that’s Biki.)Liam suggested a homecoming for Vineet. He would open his own restaurant in the old Kandahar space where he had once worked. Vineet was willing but Biki was uncomfortable with the idea. Why should a leading Indian hotel company have to fall back on a celebrity Indian chef from London? Eventually Liam won and Ziya is a Vineet Bhatia restaurant. I am glad Liam had his way. I am a fan of Vineet’s cooking and when Biki hosted dinner at Ziya after the interview I was delighted by the food. We got all of Vineet Bhatia’s greatest hits: the wild mushroom khichdi, the tandoori salmon, the makhni ice-cream, the lamb chops, the masala foie gras etc.

The renovated Bombay Oberoi marks a subtle shift in priorities for the Oberoi group. Experience demonstrates that unlike business travellers who demand discounted room rates, leisure traffic is much more willing to spend big bucks. The decision to put in more suites suggests that Biki is trying to turn the Oberois into leisure properties that will go head to head with Bombay’s old Taj and Delhi’s Imperial. He has a spanking new Trident in Bandra to match the one in Nariman Point. These will cater to the business traveller. But the Oberois will be grand hotels like Hong Kong’s Peninsula or Bangkok’s Oriental.

It is a logical if ambitious strategy. Biki has two new openings (both Oberois) planned: Gurgaon in September and Dubai next year. They will mark a continuation of the strategy, yet another jump in Biki’s relentless quest to take the Oberois to the very top of the market. His father lived to be 104. Biki is only 81. So I guess he’s just getting started.