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Oberoi, now 93, joined the company well into his 40s, until he lived in the finest hotels in New York, London and Paris, hanging out with the wealthy and the famous. The Carlyle in Rome, the Ritz in Paris and the Richemont in Geneva – he was a frequent visitor to all of these establishments, not only as a guest but also as a student absorbing what made them icons.
Several firsts launched by Oberoi included commercial corridors in hotels, combining two assets in the same premises –– one more premium and one slightly less expensive (Oberoi and Trident).
Oberoi’s firm belief was that people are the most valuable asset of any organization. Recognizing the importance of quality in hotel management, he established “The Oberoi Center of Learning and Development” in New Delhi in 1967, from which many top hotel executives graduated and are now part of the industry through brands.
Kapil Chopra, former chairman of the Oberoi Group and current founder of Postcard Hotels, says the creation of the Vilas resorts was a monumental step in creating the country’s upscale destinations and is clearly one of his greatest contributions. Today they include the Rajvilas, Udaivilas, Sukhvilas, Vanyavilas and the Wildflower Hall complex, which is also a “Vilas” in some respects. It literally served as India’s answer to Aman Resorts and put India on that high end luxury map. .
“The real wealth of scale available in India, in my opinion, only took off in 2010 and people started living,” he said. “Wildflower Hall would have been 99% occupancy after that and in its day was way ahead of its time to see the trends come into play.”
The attention to detail and quality, service levels and housekeeping were of course also legendary. Stories of how hotel staff researched guest photos and kept track of their birthdays, personal likes and likes and dislikes long before the era of digital devices made so easy, make part of the legend. They also made up what created the gold dust in an Oberoi hotel and led a guest to be impressed with the personal touches. The focus on customer satisfaction ultimately drove the company.
“I was opening the Trident Gurgaon. It was dusk and he had just opened and he was walking with me and he said ‘my only advice to you is don’t compromise because when you do, you do. make the guest experience,” Chopra said. “It stuck with me. In my opinion, he is the best hotelier in the world so far, considering what he has taken away from India, which is a developing country and maybe second only to his father.” Everything was imported during some time including toilet paper until good ply quality is available in India.
Today, the company has 33 hotels and 2 Nile cruisers and is present in 7 countries, but internationalization was one of Oberoi’s main strategic initiatives. Its focus avoided capital-intensive expansion into Western countries and instead focused on the doorsteps of the West. Other Oberoi Hotels include properties in Morocco, Mauritius and the United Arab Emirates. Foreign projects were also an area Oberoi would spend a lot of time discussing with his nephew Arjun Oberoi, the chain’s new boss and son of his late brother who will take the reins in October.
The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh, is a breathtaking view of a hotel located on nearly 50 acres on the Red Sea in Egypt. It was launched in 2001, offered professional level scuba diving retreats and has won several global hospitality awards. While assets such as its resorts displayed its value and, therefore, high-margin approach to hospitality, indeed, in many ways Oberoi also served almost as an architectural designer of hotels.
In 2016, he invested in renovating The Oberoi, New Delhi, and hired Adam Tihany, a New York-based designer and architect known for his work on the Four Seasons in Dubai and the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. The hotel is now open and features contemporary decor, while maintaining its classic vibe and featuring artwork by Edwin Lutyens.
As Sarna says, The Oberoi has resisted commoditization, which most chains have succumbed to and which is hard to do in today’s world.