If Manners Maketh the Man, It’s What Set PRS 'Biki' Oberoi Apart From Others

Little can replace the personal Oberoi brand of hospitality in which it is the small things that count for most.

4 min read
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In the 1980s and ’90s, when tourism was regarded as a Western import and hotels reduced staff strength drastically in the low-occupancy summer season, the Taj group was known for its service.

The newbie ITC Welcomgroup came across as Indian and family-friendly, but the Oberois – widely regarded as the most professional among Indian hotel chains – were considered snooty.

Till you met Prithvi Raj Singh ‘Biki’ Oberoi personally.

Other hotel chiefs were magnanimous with hospitality in their restaurants, but Biki Oberoi only ever met you at his farmhouse in Delhi’s outlying Bijwasan. Amidst acres of rolling grasslands and his horse stables, his own cottage was modest by Delhi’s farmhouse standards. In the winter, you could expect a low fire in the grate facing which, on a dining table, he served you a meal that had to meet his own exacting standards.


Biki Oberoi Upped the Luxury Stakes in the Hospitality Industry

On at least two occasions, it consisted of a flavourful lemon chicken soup, garlic toast by the side, lamb chops with potato mash and sautéed vegetables – clearly a favourite – over which he answered questions about his hotel chain and his plans.

At this point, his father, Mohan Singh (MS) Oberoi was very much in the chair and given to meetings in his office at The Oberoi Maidens in Old Delhi where, after the formal interview was over, a PR professional would whisk you off for lunch at the hotel’s coffee shop, quashing any protests that it was not required. Both Oberois clearly believed that the key to satisfaction began with the stomach.

In New Delhi’s hoteliering and social circles, chatter about the personal life of the Oberois was grist to the mill, among which was the question of Biki’s ability to manage the mantle that he would be bequeathed by ‘MS’. His elder brother Raj Tilak Singh ‘Tiki’ Oberoi had passed away earlier. MS was a stickler for organisation, having built up the chain from scratch. Would Biki qualify for the role he was destined for?

By 1997, Biki had silenced all such speculation. The Raj Vilas in Jaipur – his baby, and the first Vilas in the group – was not just the finest resort hotel in India, it was among the best in the world, winning accolades and awards from the first year. It was inspired by his fondness for the Naila Fort that he had acquired for his personal retreat, and the attention to detail that he saw in family-owned historic properties in Rajasthan.

Other Vilas hotels followed, among them Wildflower Hall, the historic state-government run property in Mashobra, outside Shimla, that was privatised after a devastating fire and rebuilt entirely by the Oberoi group. Biki had considerably upped the luxury stakes in the hospitality industry, combining opulence with sophistication.

When Amar Vilas opened in Agra just in time for General Pervez Musharraf’s summit with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001, Biki made a special allowance for me to spend the night in the suite intended for Musharraf so I could report on it. Of course, the following morning, with security sealing the property, I had to be smuggled out from an exit at the rear of the hotel, hastily vacating the bed the Pakistani premier would occupy a few hours later.


Little Can Replace the Personal Oberoi Brand of Hospitality

Neither MS nor Biki courted the press, preferring to let their professional managers do the talking, but both were sticklers almost to the point of obsessiveness when it came to their hotels. For a special evening of art at The Oberoi in Mumbai at which I was to speak some years earlier, a pop-up gallery had been set up in the lobby.

However, we were not allowed to replace a Ram Kumar painting from a wall in the background because the chairman of the group was scheduled to arrive at the hotel and would have been appalled to see an artwork removed from its designated spot. He missed nothing on these visits and the staff was on tenterhooks whenever one was due.

Famously, his memory never failed him too, and he would indicate a word or phrase that he might have deemed inappropriate, although never making a fuss about it. At an event to introduce daughter Natasha Oberoi’s Chinkara wines especially designed for the group’s restaurants at an Australian vineyard, I badgered him about his favoured successor.

Both Vikram, his son, and Arjun, his nephew, were present, but just as his own father had refrained from openly talking about any succession plans, Biki Oberoi too did not provide any satisfactory response, clearly believing in grooming the third generation for their roles and letting them grow into these. In 2022, on account of ill-health, the baton of executive chairmanship passed to his nephew, Arjun Oberoi. His son Vikram Singh Oberoi is the group’s managing director and CEO.

MS lived to a grand age of 104. Biki inherited the longevity gene from his father but passed away at 94 on Tuesday morning, leaving behind a rich legacy owned 18.83 percent by Reliance, 13.69 percent by ITC, while Oberoi’s own share remains at 17.67 percent. Will the other biggies impact how Brand Oberoi is conceived and run?

While time will tell, little can replace the personal Oberoi brand of hospitality in which it is the small things that count for most. I remember both eventful lunches with Biki Oberoi at his farmhouse where, meal over, he walked up the pebbled driveway to see me off to my car, even holding the door open while I got in. Not too many hotel magnates would do that for you. If manners maketh the man, it’s what set Biki Oberoi apart from others. If that’s snooty, I’ll take it.

(Kishore Singh is a former travel and lifestyle journalist and editor.) 

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Topics:  Obituary   prs oberoi 

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