Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi: Doyen of the Indian hotel industry

The man who shaped the Oberoi Hotels may have retired recently but he has set the bar incredibly high for other Indian hoteliers who want to follow in his footsteps. We track the trajectory of his phenomenal passion and brilliance.

Born with the proverbial (and literal!) silver spoon in his mouth, PRS Oberoi has known from an early age exactly what constitutes luxury, what it takes to take a five-star hotel from meh to ooh. As someone who has taken the Oberoi Hotels group to the zenith of success and created benchmark best practices for the India’s hospitality industry, he is a changemaker extraordinaire, and one who is looked up to by all who have worked with him and by those who wish they had!

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

PRS Oberoi grew up under the tutelage of his father, the dynamic Mohan Singh Oberoi. The senior Oberoi left his home in Bhaun (in present-day Pakistan) with just Rs 25 to start life afresh in Shimla in 1922. Starting as a clerk at the front desk at The Cecil, the inveterate entrepreneur managed to buy The Clarkes Hotel by 1934, after mortgaging his wife Ishran Devi’s jewellery and all his assets.

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The Clarkes Hotel in Shimla today is a Grand Heritage property. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

MS Oberoi not only made a success of this venture, but soon became known for his penchant for picking up floundering properties and recreating them in a dazzling new avatar. The way he turned around the cholera-ridden Grand Hotel in Kolkata (now The Oberoi Grand) by offering it to the British army stationed there during World War II and being awarded the title of Rai Bahadur for his services by the British government in India in 1943, could be a case study for clever rebranding even today.

The formidable Rai Bahadur built the Oberoi empire with sheer grit. And his sons, to the manor born, as they say, took it ahead with gumption. The elder and more flamboyant Raj Tilak Singh known to friends and family as ‘Tiki’ and Prithvi Raj Singh or ‘Biki’ five years his junior, were both well-heeled, well-travelled, and well-versed in the good life.

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Ishran Devi and Rai Bahadur, with grand-daughter Prem (Mehra) and son Prithvi Raj Singh being greeted by associates at the New Delhi airport on their way back from Europe. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

With Rai Bahadur retired and the untimely demise of Tiki in 1984, Biki had to step up to the plate and the rest was history. As veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria, who has followed the family’s fortunes for her book on the patriarch, says, “His elder brother, (the late) Tiki was the heir apparent, and he really was his father’s favourite. But when we know we’re number two, we try harder, and I think that is why Biki went so all out to prove that he could do it.”

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The late Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi and his son Prithvi Raj Singh. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Although PRS Oberoi had tried his hand at managing The Grand Hotel and a few other properties in Pakistan in 1955 (until the Pakistan government took them over in 1965), he hadn’t quite found his groove before he took over the reins, decades later. But, he had the polish of an education from St Paul’s School in Darjeeling and others of the same mettle in the UK and Switzerland.

The fine education was further honed by exposure to some of the world’s best establishments as he travelled far and wide, understanding the nuances of customer experience and quality hospitality. He therefore knew instinctively what goes into creating a truly world-class hotel and the finesse of an experience that goes above and beyond five-star. 

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PRS Oberoi (right) with his father in Rome. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

With him at the helm, the Oberoi Hotels portfolio expanded and excelled, from 13 properties when he took over, to a total of 32 hotels and resorts across seven countries, including the Trident line, besides two cruise vessels on the Nile in Egypt, and another in the Kerala backwaters. Only he had the vision (and chutzpah!) to create the ultra-luxury Vilas resorts. Existing royal residences wouldn’t do, he decided to build all-new palaces from the ground up. He personally chose every single tree that would be planted in one, almost redesigned the architect’s plans completely in another.

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People were amazed by the audacity of a man who wanted to build modern-day palaces like The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur! Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

He took such risks, albeit calculated ones, put all his resources into building the very best, and then, instead of waiting for the accolades, worked on making them even better! Rajiv Kaul, former President, Leela Hotels, who has worked closely with PRS Oberoi for several years before taking on leadership roles at the Taj and Leela, points out, “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.”

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The Oberoi Amar Vilas in Agra with a view of the Taj Mahal. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

The best in everything, from architecture to amenities, and, most of all, service. “You’ll hear him say ‘service is everything’ several times a day,” says Kaul, explaining how PRS Oberoi has always wanted his staff to find out how they can make the guest experience better. “Once he saw me talking to an industrialist in the lobby. He asked me later what I was asking him. On hearing that I had asked him if his stay was comfortable, he said ‘what else did you expect him to say?!'” Kaul smiles ruefully. The gentleman hotelier made it a point to always ask how he could enhance the guests’ experience henceforth.

Apart from hiring people with impeccable class and credentials, he even ran the Oberoi School of Hotel Management (now renamed the Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development) founded in 1966 to great success, leading to generations of hotelier hopefuls starting off with impeccable foundational experience.

Working in the same luxury space as Oberoi, Roland Fasel, COO, Aman, has met many individuals who are products of OCLD. “I’ve had the privilege to work with them over the years, and seldom do you find a group, which has such a strength of belonging. The staff that is trained there has such pride and dedication to our business, all the passion and resilience necessary and that comes back to Mr Oberoi’s organisation,” Fasel appreciates.

As Wolf Hengst, industry expert and Strategic Advisor, Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, who is an educator in the hotel industry too, observes, “We’ve hired, both in my time in Four Seasons and in Six Senses, graduates of the school, and there is a sense of belonging to Oberoi even after they left the school and don’t work for Oberoi!” 

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The OCLD alumni are a close-knit community and they have a special regard for PRS Oberoi. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development.

It’s true. Those who have worked with him have had to meet with his exacting standards. They remember his attention to detail, his commitment to excellence at any cost that almost seems to border on the eccentric. The legendary (or is it cautionary?) tale that every new employee at the Oberoi heard about the colour of the egg yolk reigning supreme. The much less publicised one about the kitchen team jumping through hoops to please the pet parrot’s palate. The one where an entire set of electrical fittings were torn down to be reinstalled because they weren’t at the right height.

They’ve all been put through their paces trying to match his unflagging drive and ceaseless passion. And while it must have certainly been difficult to meet those high standards, all of them are unanimous that the quality-consciousness and drive to excel has stayed with them stood them in good stead throughout their careers.

Kapil Chopra, Founder, EazyDiner and The Postcard Hotels, who served as President of Oberoi Hotels from 2013 to 2018 before striking out on his own, puts it best, “He lives, breathes, and dreams about hotels all the time. He’s always switched on. Anyone working with him, has to be on top of their game.”

Chef Vineet Bhatia, the man who put Indian cuisine on the UK map and has received several Michelin stars for his many restaurants, is not only a graduate of OCLD, starting off his career at the Oberoi Hotels, but has come back to the same kitchen where he first peeled potatoes by creating the fine dining menu for Ziya at Oberoi Mumbai, which has been a hit since 2009.

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Ziya, the modern Indian restaurant at The Oberoi Mumbai. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Bhatia too attributes much of his success to what he learned from PRS Oberoi. “He has a very keen sense and eye for detail. He’s extremely particular about everything, including his own lifestyle, about how he dresses, how he operates, how he conducts meetings… He has extremely good taste in luxury and in life. He’s used to dealing only with the best. So, when you’re around someone like that, you are at your best because he demands the best from you. This has been instilled in my DNA and stays with me even today,” he says.

Chef Atul Kochhar, who similarly graduated from OCLD, worked with Oberoi Hotels before moving to the UK and earning a Michelin star, says, “Mr Oberoi has the Midas touch, everything he touches turns to gold!”

PRS Oberoi’s sphere of influence is global. Hoteliers and travel industry leaders the world couldn’t but help sit up and take notice when his hotels started to garner awards and praise from every quarter. Nancy Novogrod, founder, Culturati Travel Design, and former Editor-in-Chief of Travel + Leisure, one of the titles that have bestowed recognition on Oberoi Hotels, says, “One could immediately see Biki’s imprint on these properties, which so beguilingly capture the exoticism and beauty of India coupled with all the creature comforts, top-drawer service, and attention to detail that the most demanding of international luxury travellers expect.”

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The rooms and suites at The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur are quintessentially Indian with all the amenities that a luxury traveller expects. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Jacqui Gifford, the current Editor-in-chief, asserts, “Mr Oberoi’s impact on bringing American travellers to India — having them experience a true sense of local hospitality and warmth at his hotels and resorts — can never be quantified. His legacy on the global travel industry is unmatched.”

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PRS Oberoi, a living legend. Image: Courtesy Oberoi Hotels.

Matthew Upchurch, Chairman & CEO of Virtuoso, one of the largest networks of travel advisors, observes, “Biki really helped elevate the luxury factor of India, its authenticity, its luxury, its feeling to the world.”

PRS Oberoi’s decision to resign from his role as Executive Chairman and Director of the Oberoi Group’s flagship company EIH Limited and as Chairman and Director of EIH Limited’s subsidiary EIH Associated Hotels due to ill health last month (May 2022) has created waves in the world of hospitality the world over.

The sense of nostalgia is natural, but we are sure that his many protégés will continue to embody the spirit of this living legend.

(With inputs from Peter J Bates and Amit Dixit.)

Read more.

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