Rajiv Kaul: ‘Mr Oberoi has always said he doesn’t want to be the biggest, he wants to be the best. And he has been true to that.’

Distinguished hotelier Rajiv Kaul, former President, Leela Hotels has worked closely with PRS Oberoi, and is a treasure trove of fascinating anecdotes about this dynamic personality.

An alumnus of the Oberoi School of Hotel Management (as the Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development was then known), seasoned hotelier Rajiv Kaul began his career in hospitality with The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts in 1978, eventually taking over as vice-president of Oberoi Hotels Egypt before he moved on to leadership roles with the Taj and Leela groups.

One from the rare breed of ‘gentlemen hoteliers’ that PRS Oberoi handpicked, Kaul believes that his choice of people from a public school and services background is what set the Oberoi a class apart from other hotels. Kaul even asked Oberoi about this once, and his reply was telling: ‘I can train anyone to be a hotelier, but I can’t train someone to be a gentleman hotelier’.

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Rajiv Kaul: A hotelier and a gentleman. Image: Yash Shinde.

Oberoi’s greatest investment has been in people. Kaul narrates how he not only encouraged him to study at Cornell, but also to stay back for six more months after he completed his course to work at legendary hotels like the Crillon and the Ritz because that’s the experience he felt was needed, as at that time (1997) he was launching The Oberoi brand.

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Doyen of Indian hospitality: PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Today, there are leaders in the hospitality industry across multiple chains who have come from the Oberoi stable. And they all have a certain sense of responsibility towards excellence, a passion that has been indoctrinated into them from their early years at the Oberoi. “You can do anything, but you have to do it in the best possible way. Every act of yours is a signature. These are simple things, but Mr Oberoi teaches them through personal example, so it stays with you,” smiles Kaul.

“The bedrock of excellence is service and Mr Oberoi has always emphasised service. It starts with warmth, promptness, goes on to courtesy, being personalised and then finally to be anticipatory,” he says, explaining that you’ll often hear the veteran hotelier say, ‘Service is everything’ a number of times.

Lauding Oberoi as an oracle and a hotelier’s hotelier, Kaul recalls the time when, in the late 80s, a few promising young employees were sent on a trip to see some of the best hotels in the world. “We actually visited these hotels and spent time there to see what made them what they were. And then we brought back and incorporated those best practices into the Oberoi Hotels, he recalls, explaining. “It was always about quality and being benchmarked with the best. He raised the bar for luxury.”

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Oberoi’s greatest investment has been in people. Image: Yash Shinde.

How exactly did he achieve this? Kaul replies, “His attention to detail is legendary. There are so many stories… about how he wants the chicken to be cut into four pieces, how French fries must be blanched before they’re fried, and how the best toast is made from bread that’s one day old. These are some of his pet peeves, but he’s absolutely right. If you want the best for your guests, you’ve got to do it right. And there’s only one way of doing it right.”

Kaul learned early on that the questions hospitality professionals need to ask themselves are ‘How can we find newer and better ways to delight our guests? How does one better the guest experience?’ He says that Oberoi advocated the approach that the only way you can better it is perhaps if you focus on an area where there is room for improvement, rather than 10 things that are going right.

“He’s always pursued perfection and perfection is a journey, not a destination,” he says, pointing out, “Mr Oberoi would always say I don’t want to be the biggest, I want to be the best and he has been true to that.”

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