PRS Oberoi, Iconic Hotelier synonymous with Luxury


Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, better known as Biki Oberoi, who passed away earlier this week, was a phenomenal hotelier who gave a new meaning to luxury and hospitality in this country. In fact, he was a pioneer and the Vilas brand of the East India Hotels was his creation and brainchild. A perfectionist, who would settle for nothing but the best, he had no qualms over investing liberally in his projects; the standard instructions to his managers were that do not worry about the costs, concentrate on providing a unique experience to all the potential clients. Biki, was the younger son of the legendary Hotelier, the late Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi. The elder son, Tiki Oberoi, passed away prematurely and the onus of the carrying on the grand Oberoi tradition fell on Biki, whose eye for detail and insistence of taking hospitality to a new level, was always a hall mark of his group. While his father was influenced by the Hotel traditions of the Western world, Biki, brought the Asian culture into the industry and excelled. The salient feature of all Oberoi hotels has always been its room service in particular, which is extraordinary, and far better than many of its competitors. Although, I had met Tiki Oberoi, only a few times, yet he struck me as a person who made no compromises when it came to his hotels or its staffing pattern. His emphasis was always on the luxury aspect, and on many occasions, the food would not be at par with the services offered and the costs. However, for Biki Oberoi, there was nothing which was not the best in any of his brands and he would insist that Oberois was second to none. Nakul Anand, one of the senior most functionaries of the ITC group recalled that when he and his wife were invited by Biki to watch a India-Pakistan cricket match, they were served chicken sandwiches, which their host insisted were better than any they would have consumed. Nakul, himself an accomplished hotelier, wrote in a newspaper article, that he informed Biki, that the best sandwiches were served by a confectionary in Delhi, which was not a part of any hotel. The next day, he had sent a box of those chicken sandwiches by that particular confectionary to Biki’s home and received a call acknowledging that yes, they were very good. This was among a few times, Biki conceded a point to his rivals. The critics of the Oberoi Hotels, have always maintained that the food was not at par with many other hotels and was overpriced. This was something which he would never concur with. Whenever Biki would visit any of his properties, the staff would scurry for cover; he would always notice some dust or dirt at the most invisible corner of any setting and would promptly focus on it to drive home his point. Money did not matter to him and there is a story of how he got the entire tiles pulled out from a swimming pool at one of his properties since they did not give the right shade of blue. My association with the Oberoi group was essentially because my father also hailed from Bhaun, the village in the Jhelum district (now in Pakistan) where Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi was born. Mohan Singh Oberoi and my father’s maternal uncle, AC Mehta, an accomplished lawyer with practice in Simla, were childhood friends. It was on Mehta’s insistence that Mohan Singh had travelled to Simla where he started working at the Cecil Hotel. Circumstances changed and he was able to acquire the Hotel and rest is history. My paternal grandmother while passing the Oberois in New Delhi would always refer to the imposing structure as “Mohan Singh da Hotel’’. Although I have never been to Bhaun as I was born in Delhi, the mention of the village had struck a chord when I met Mohan Singh Oberoi, at a press conference he was addressing at the hotel, while I was with the Times of India, during my first stint with the paper, in the mid-1980s. He developed a liking for me instantly and made me sit next to him. Biki Oberoi was aware of our common roots but was never focused on personal relationships. He had seen it all by the time, his father associated him with his business and it is well known that till the age of 32, all what Biki Oberoi did was to travel extensively around the world and live in the most luxurious places and have the best food at iconic restaurants. As Vir Sanghvi, my former Editor at Hindustan Times and amongst the most well-known writers on Hotels and food, has stated that his early life, influenced him to go in for raising his hotels to another level. The Oberoi group had the Maidens in Delhi and later built the Oberoi Intercontinental on Mathura Road, opposite my school. However, the name Oberoi was always associated with Hotels in India and much before the Tatas through the Taj group and the ITC, entered the hospitality business, the sole name which was internationally recognized was that of Oberois. The Oberois (earlier Intercontinental), in Delhi became the home of many international celebrities including Conrad Rooks, better known for the Shashi Kapoor-Simi starrer, “Siddhartha” who stayed there for a long period. Dev Anand had a favorite suite which he always prefererd when on a trip to Delhi. Biki Oberoi is no more but the brand name would continue to reign supreme with son, Vikram and nephew Arjun taking the family business forward and to new heights.