PRS Oberoi’s unapologetic love for the good life has led him to create an Indian hospitality group that has huge admirers at home and on foreign shores, and guests who keep coming back for more.
By now, we all know that PRS Oberoi has stepped down as Executive Chairman of East India Hotels (EIH) Limited. His nephew, Arjun Oberoi has taken over as Executive Chairman, while his son Vikramjit Oberoi is MD and CEO. It marks an end of an era, not just for The Oberoi Group but also for the Indian luxury hospitality industry.
Many stories and narratives emit from the enigma that is PRS Oberoi. At Traveldine, we have attempted to understand and unravel some of the mysteries of what makes Mr Oberoi such a legend, through conversations with hospitality stalwarts and veteran journalists and authors in India and abroad. Our special section is an ode to the genius of Mr Oberoi.
My personal favourite story is the one that revolves around eggs. Many Oberoi hotel chefs have broken into a sweat at his habit of randomly breaking an egg to check the colour of the yolk, or even sending back his breakfast because the “colour is not right”. It had to be a deep shade of yellow, or sunrise yellow. Mr Oberoi had once remarked, “I consider myself to be a very fussy guest.” Across The Oberoi properties — from city hotels to luxury resorts — the team ensures that every fussy (and unfussy) guest is converted into a patron for life.
Years ago, on a stroll through The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, the then general manager of the property, Anshul Kaul had pointed out an intricate network of gardens that smelled of jasmine, regal fountains, blazing gulmohar, juicy purple jacaranda, flaming red bottlebrush, and mustard yellow gooseberry or Indian amla trees, through which strolled the resort’s resident peacocks, and said, “Every tree here has been chosen carefully after long discussions with Mr Oberoi, who knows every single thing that has gone into the making of the property, including the kulhads in which we serve chai. Those, too, were chosen by him.”
PRS, or Biki Oberoi as he is popularly known, was not meant to take over the hotel group in 1984, at least not immediately. His early life included hotel hopping across different countries and extended stays at the world’s finest hotels, sojourns that defined his idea about hoteliering and luxury. Unfortunately, his older brother Tilak Raj Oberoi or Tiki Oberoi, who was heading the hotel group then, passed away. And suddenly PRS Oberoi was the man in charge.
The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur. The Vilas properties were built from scratch and are redolent with the luxurious style of India’s palaces melded with modern amenities.
The Padma Vibhushan winner’s long list of achievements includes not just growing the group from 13 properties to 32, a few in some of the world’s best tourist destinations, but also single-handedly creating a world-class hospitality group that introduced the world to Indian luxury. He was the worthy inheritor of his father, Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi’s hoteliering legacy.
Mr Oberoi’s definition of understated luxury is inspired not just by Indian palaces and forts but also by his peripatetic life. To him, luxury was defined by ‘height, light, and space”, and his passion for these design concepts have defined the architecture of his hotels. He drew the lesson about height and volume from hotels such as Peninsula and Four Seasons. His focus on unobtrusive service similarly was the result of his travels. Among his many journeys was one to Tokyo “in unpressurised DC-4 aeroplanes,” from Kolkata via Rangoon, Singapore, and Hongkong.
In Hongkong, Mr Oberoi once sought out Bob Burns, who ran the Regent Hotel chain, to ask him why the size of the bathrooms at the hotel had suddenly become voluminous. It led to him insisting on large naturally lit bathrooms in The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts set up or refurbished later.
The Oberoi Vilas properties are in many ways inspired not just by the luxury embodied in Indian palaces, but also by his stays in such iconic hotels, where classic luxury melded seamlessly with modern amenities.
He chose to build every Vilas from scratch, rather than resort to buying the many forts and palaces in private control and converting them into palatial hotels. Not many Indian palaces were suitable for conversion into the kind of resort properties he envisaged. The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts are known for their aesthetics — high ceilings, sprawling gardens, French-style windows, and natural light infusing spaces, including the bathrooms (the refurbished The Oberoi Delhi, The Oberoi Gurgaon, and The Oberoi Mumbai, for instance).
Most hoteliers today speak about transforming rarely explored beautiful parts of the world into the next ‘it destination’ by setting up hotels there. Mr Oberoi did this 22 years ago with Wildflower Hall, Shimla, which opened in the early 2000s. Mashobra, where it is located, was not the destination it is today and in the first decade, it bled money. In the next decade, the property made enough money to wipe out all the past losses and turn in a profit.
When terrorists attacked and destroyed The Oberoi Trident, PRS Oberoi— who was then in Mumbai and staying at the property but had travelled out for an event — pumped in Rs 175 crore to completely change the hotel, with only the outer façade remaining unchanged. He set new standards by eliminating the check-in counter, ensuring that the lobby was spacious, and inviting his former protégé, Chef Vineet Bhatia, to open a restaurant called Ziya there, which serves modern Indian food.
The firsts the hotelier introduced to Indian hospitality are many. The Oberoi New Delhi was India’s first hotel to offer 24 hours in-room dining and butler service. It was also the first hotel to introduce a private club for business meetings and the country’s first 24-hour coffee shop, which eventually transformed into 360 degrees, an all-day diner that introduced sushi to the capital city. While setting up The Oberoi Gurgaon, Delhi, he insisted on the mock-up room going through 40 or 50 iterations.
The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts service standards are much applauded. Sanjay Rishi, the former President of American Express South Asia, recalls how he had once asked for a brand of a particular Oolong green tree at an Oberoi hotel. Today, no matter which Oberoi property he stays in, his room is stocked with the brand even before he checks in. Every time a guest checks into an Oberoi property, his details, from his dietary choices to her favourite flowers, sleep patterns, pillow options, and more are fed into a guest management system and shared across the entire Oberoi hotel eco-system.
His gumption and guts that led him to create world-class hotels also translated into how much the hotels charged for a room. When it was first built, the Oberoi Gurgaon has the highest room rate in India. He boasted before the opening of The Oberoi, Dubai that the emirate would have seen nothing like it before, despite the presence of global luxury hotel brands.
Mr Oberoi loves the good life, which reflects in everything he does: his sprawling Frank Lloyd-inspired home outside Delhi, his horses, and the Cohiba cigars he smokes. His favourite shoe brand is John Lobb, particularly their opera shoes with red insoles and black grosgrain bow. This unapologetic love for the good life has led him to create an Indian hospitality group that has huge admirers at home and on foreign shores, and guests who keep coming back for more.