Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi (PRS Oberoi), the esteemed Chairman Emeritus of the Oberoi Group and a stalwart in the Indian hospitality sector, passed away at the age of 94 this Tuesday. Affectionately known as ‘Biki’, his legacy has forever transformed the landscape of the Indian hotel and hospitality industry.
Being globally recognised for establishing India’s first five-star hotel, we go back in time and look at Biki Oberoi’s noteworthy journey of becoming one of the most prominent figures in the Indian hospitality sector.
Early life and ambitions
At the age of 10, Biki Oberoi was enrolled in St Paul’s School in Darjeeling, Bengal, in 1939, a time when his father, Mohan Singh, was venturing into the hotel business.
Mohan Singh had purchased his first property, Clarkes Hotel in Shimla, in 1934, as he sought to establish himself as a hotelier. With time, he was able to learn the ropes of hospitality as a clerk at Shimla’s Cecil Hotel (now The Oberoi Cecil).
Recognising his talent, the owner made him a partner in a recently acquired hotel. In 1934, when the British owner decided to sell the hotel, Mohan Singh used his savings and borrowed funds to purchase the property.
By 1938, he expanded his holdings by acquiring the Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand) in Calcutta.
In a noteworthy move in 1943, Mohan Singh purchased the Associated Hotels of India (AHI), the owner of Shimla’s Cecil Hotel where he had initially worked as a clerk.
Meanwhile, Biki Oberoi’s journey was just beginning. He completed school in 1946 and, in 1949, decided to work in hotels in France and Switzerland and gather practical experience. Although valuable, he noted that he already had a solid foundation in the hotel industry, having spent his entire life in hotels until 1973, growing up with a deep understanding of the business.
The Genesis of Oberoi Hotels
In 1955, he returned to the family business and assumed responsibility for the four hotels in Pakistan acquired through the AHI deal. However, the 1965 war resulted in the Pakistani government taking control of those hotels.
Despite the setback, the subsequent growth of the business helped alleviate the impact of this loss. Collaborating with his father and elder brother, Tilak ‘Tikki’ Raj Singh Oberoi, Biki focused on expanding the group both within India and internationally.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Biki Oberoi gained a reputation for his meticulous attention to detail and commitment to comfort. Known for carrying his own towels and bringing chefs to cities where the Oberoi Group did not own hotels, Oberoi’s extensive travel had given him a keen understanding of world-class hotels.
Recognising that their existing properties fell short of global standards due to their age, Oberoi took several steps to address this challenge. In 1988, he inaugurated a new hotel in Chennai, constructed by local businessman Lakshminarayan Ganesh, who later became a director in EIH. Although the property was a five-star hotel and not a luxury establishment, Oberoi seized the opportunity to introduce a new brand—Trident.
Understanding that his father’s desire to be among the world’s best hotels could only be fulfilled by opening a grand property, Oberoi found the perfect opportunity in the mid-1990s. Acquiring 28 acres on the outskirts of Jaipur, he oversaw the construction of The Oberoi Rajvilas. Within a year of its debut in 1998, the hotel gained recognition as one of the world’s finest. Oberoi continued this success with other iconic properties in Agra, Udaipur, and Ranthambore.
A Forbes India report mentions Kapil Chopra, an ex-president of The Oberoi Group, who had a crucial conversation with Oberoi to understand his role. During the briefing, Oberoi received a distressing call from the general manager of The Oberoi, Mauritius, reporting a fire that was destroying the property.
In the midst of the crisis, Oberoi instructed the Mauritius general manager to ensure the safety of guests and employees and to provide updates every half an hour. After hanging up, he turned to Chopra and imparted valuable advice, saying, “Kapil, there are three things that you should remember as a general manager. Your first priority should be guests, second should be employees, and once the first two are taken care of, you will be sure of a profitable operation.”