Hotel

A legacy of excellence

By VIR SANGHVI

As The Oberoi, New Delhi revels in its newly reopened avatar, take a trip down memory lane and follow the journey of its founders, a father and a son who shared a beautiful dream

No matter which business you are in, it is unusual for a father and son to have, essentially, the same dream. And it is even rarer for both men to successfully execute their versions of that dream. And yet, that is exactly what happened with The Oberoi, New Delhi.

A new breed of global businessmen was touring the world and looking for efficiently-run places to stay.
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Our story begins in the early 1960s with Mohan Singh Oberoi, already India’s leading hotelier. A self-made man, he had started out as an employee of a grand colonial hotel in Shimla. Eventually, he bought that hotel and went on to build a hospitality empire in north and east India.

He created India’s first palace hotel, the Oberoi Palace in Srinagar, by converting the grand palace of the Maharaja of Kashmir. He restored the crumbling Grand Hotel in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to its former glory and turned it into the finest hotel in the east. He conceived of India’s first Palm Beach-style beach resort at Gopalpur-on-sea. And The Oberoi Group managed The Imperial, then Delhi’s best hotel.

But Oberoi knew that times were changing. A new breed of global businessmen was touring the world and looking for efficiently-run places to stay. Even wealthy tourists looked for something more than the grand hotels of old. They wanted smart, modern hotels.

Oberoi decided that he would build India’s most luxurious  hotel, one that would equal, if not surpass, the standards set by the global chains that were opening new hotels around the world. He acquired several acres of property near the Delhi Golf Club and chose a site with an unimpeded view of the medieval monuments constructed by the original builders of Delhi. India’s top architect was hired, plans were drawn up and soon enough, construction began.

But then, Oberoi came up against a seemingly insurmountable problem. In that era, India faced a foreign exchange crisis. The government would not allow Indian companies to make payments in dollars or any other foreign currency. This was a huge setback, because Oberoi’s vision of the hotel had been that it would be a world class property with facilities of an international standard. How was he to open the hotel if the government would not let him purchase the best equipment from abroad because of the foreign exchange crisis? And so, the project was stalled. The shell of the building was ready but Oberoi could not complete the interior or outfit the hotel because he was not allowed to buy what he needed. It was at that stage, when things seemed nearly hopeless, that a well-wisher suggested a way out. Did Oberoi know that the United States Exim Bank was willing to advance funds for projects in India? All The Oberoi Group needed was an American partner.

Oberoi flew to America, met up with executives at the Intercontinental hotel chain (then owned by Pan Am airlines) and suggested an arrangement. The Intercontinental agreed to come on board provided the hotel was called The Oberoi Intercontinental. Oberoi agreed, applied for US funds, got the loan, found the dollars to pay for the imported equipment the hotel needed and resumed work on the project.

It is difficult now to explain what a sensation The Oberoi Intercontinental caused when it opened in 1965. It was not that India had no good hotels. There were many wonderful establishments, some of them run by The Oberoi Group. But they were grand hotels in the old European manner, with dining rooms that closed early and only a night porter to run the show after 10 pm.

The Oberoi Intercontinental changed all that. This was a 24-hour hotel. If you felt like a bite at 4 am, there would be a coffee shop with chefs and waiters ready to serve you. Or you could simply call room service and have a sandwich (or a biryani) delivered to your room. If you needed a suit pressed, you did not have to wake up at 8 am to call laundry and wait till the evening for it to be returned. You could give it to a valet at any time you chose, and you would get it back, nicely ironed on a wooden hanger, in an hour. This was a hotel that never slept. The staff worked round the clock to make guests happy.

The Oberoi Intercontinental did have a dining room of sorts, the Taj restaurant, with a lavish lunch buffet and a classic French menu for dinner. But the Taj was just one of the dining options. If you wanted Indian food, the Mughal Room served hot kebabs and spicy curries. There were two separate coffee shops.

The Chinese restaurant, Café Chinois, doubled as a rooftop nightclub in the evening with a live band and dancing. Two bars, The Houseboat Bar and the Skylark, served cocktails from around the world. And it wasn’t just the food. The hotel also hosted one of Delhi’s fancier bookshops, a health club, a beauty salon called Silhouette that quickly became a legend, and what was then the toniest swimming pool in the city. A little later, as the Swinging Sixties reached Delhi, Tabela, a discotheque, opened near the swimming pool and quickly became the hottest spot in town.

Nobody in India had ever seen anything like it. For foreign visitors to the city, The Oberoi Intercontinental became the only address in town. Even The Beatles checked in there when they fled from their former guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in the hills. They tried to check in anonymously but, of course, they were spotted and recognised even before they reached the reception desk!

More unusually for a hotel, The Oberoi Intercontinental became the centre of the action for the citizens of Delhi as well. It was the place to get married, to host a party or to hold a conference. The restaurants were a rage from the day the hotel opened and the hotel had been so well-planned that there was something for everyone.

The city’s elite lunched at the Taj, their grown-up children wore jackets to dance to the band at Café Chinois, and their younger children, lacking the resources to afford the more expensive restaurants, went for coffee and dessert to Café Espresso, one of the hotel’s two coffee shops.

It is no exaggeration to say that every major Indian hotel built after 1965 was deeply influenced by The Oberoi Intercontinental. Even the venerable Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai quickly built a modern new wing (opened in 1972) with a rooftop bar, a coffee shop, a Chinese restaurant etc. and also tied up with Intercontinental to become The Taj Intercontinental.

As The Oberoi Intercontinental was hailed as India’s best hotel and one of Asia’s finest, its creator was able to sit back, satisfied. He had achieved his dream. (He didn’t sit back for too long, though. In 1973, he opened a hotel in Mumbai built along the same lines as The Oberoi Intercontinental.) It was generally acknowledged that once Mohan Singh Oberoi began to relinquish control, the group would be run by his two sons TRS (Tikki) and PRS (Biki) Oberoi. Sadly, Tikki Oberoi passed away while still relatively young, so it was left to Biki to take the family legacy forward.

Today, Biki Oberoi is a legend in hoteliering circles but in the 1980s, he was better known as one of India’s leading jet-setters who travelled the world, stayed in the best hotels and mixed with the rich and famous. Though nobody suspected it at the time, this turned out to be The Oberoi Group’s greatest advantage. While most hoteliers are creatures of their training, their imagination constantly constrained by their experience, Biki thought big and out of the box. He had seen the finest hotels in the world and he decided that, as well as The Oberoi Group was doing, it was not enough to benchmark its hotels against the competition in India.

Why couldn’t the Oberois run the finest hotels in the world? Biki first came to public attention in 1986, with the successful opening of the breathtaking The Oberoi, Mumbai (next to the hotel his father had opened in 1973; that property is now called the Trident) which remains one of India’s finest hotels.

But he really got the hotel world talking when he opened a string of high-end luxury resorts (Rajvilas, Amarvilas, Udaivilas, Wildflower Hall and Vanyavilas in Rajasthan and the Himalayas) that were so brilliant in their conception and execution that they regularly appear on lists of the world’s top hotels.

Even as he appeared to have succeeded in his original goal of putting The Oberoi Group on par with the world’s best hotel chains, Biki still fretted over one Oberoi property: his father’s dream hotel in Delhi.It was now called The Oberoi, New Delhi (the Intercontinental tie-up had long been jettisoned) and continued to be the capital’s top hotel.

Biki had renovated the rooms and transformed the restaurants (the Taj eventually became the hip Threesixty; the old Café Espresso space was finally given over to a high-quality Italian restaurant called Travertino, etc.) but he was still unhappy with the way the hotel had aged. He recognised the historic importance of the property and because he idolises his father, was deeply respectful of Mohan Singh Oberoi’s dream.

But Biki had a dream too. He loved the hotel’s location with the acres of green that surrounded it and the spectacular views, and he knew how close it was to the hearts of people in Delhi. But he also realised that a hotel designed in the early 1960s did not necessarily fit in with modern standards of luxury. His dream was to preserve the soul of the Delhi Oberoi but to completely remodel its body so that it seemed like one of the 21st century’s great luxury properties.

When it came to the public areas, this was not very difficult to do. The lobby and the restaurants had been refitted and renovated several times since the hotel opened in 1965. A new swimming pool had also been built in the vast green space at the rear of the hotel. The challenge lay in remodeling the rooms. In the 1960s, when the hotel was designed, hotel rooms tended to be smaller and, well, less luxurious. But now, the new hotels that Biki Oberoi was opening all had vast rooms, designed by the world’s top decorators that conveyed an air of elegant luxury.

For The Oberoi, New Delhi, to be the hotel of his dreams, the rooms had to reflect Biki’s conception of luxury. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he could build the rooms he wanted. But it would involve sacrifice. The hotel had 290 rooms. He would have to give up at least 72 of them to create newer, larger rooms. Economically, this seemed risky. No hotelier likes sacrificing a large chunk of his room inventory and the revenues that come with it only to implement his dream of spacious luxury.

Then, there were the mechanics of the remodeling to consider. Usually, hotels like to renovate their rooms floor by floor. So while workmen labour over the rooms on one floor, the rest of the hotel remains operational and the revenues keep pouring in. Biki Oberoi refused to take this route. No matter how quiet the workmen would try to be, he knew that there would be a fair amount of banging and drilling. And guests on other floors were certain to hear the noise. Biki was not going to allow his guests to have anything less than a totally luxurious experience. So the floor-by-floor approach would not work. He would close the whole hotel while the remodeling was in progress.

I have no idea what the response was at the company’s board meeting when Biki Oberoi made two announcements. First, that he was sacrificing around a quarter of the rooms and and the second, that there would be no revenues (and profits, the hotel was making lots of money, even if Biki thought the rooms were too small) for the 18 months to two years that it would take to turn The Oberoi, New Delhi into the hotel of his dreams. But I guess it helps when it is your name that is on the door. Biki had his way.

When The Oberoi, New Delhi re-opened in January 2018, it was still recognisably the same hotel; and yet it was not. There was still the iconic Tree of Life in the lobby but there was also a lovely new open courtyard just off the lobby-banquet space. Threesixty, often described as the living room of Delhi, because it was the place where the city’s movers and shakers met, was still there. Only now, it seemed cooler and more casual. More like a drawing room, in fact.

And there were cutting-edge new restaurants. The old rooftop nightclub, the Café Chinois, had become Taipan, a Singapore-style Chinese restaurant in the 1980s. Though Taipan was much loved by regulars, Biki decided that the hotel needed to be ahead of the curve. He closed Taipan and enlisted the services of Andrew Wong whose Michelin-starred A. Wong is the hottest Chinese restaurant in London. Andrew worked with The Oberoi Group’s chefs to create Baoshuan, a brand new Chinese restaurant.

The issue of whether or not to open an Indian restaurant had vexed The Oberoi Group. The last Indian restaurant at The Oberoi, New Delhi had been Kandahar (in the old Mughal Room space) but Biki had closed it down a decade ago and given the space over to a massively successful new deli and pastry place. But now, as they rethought the hotel, the question cropped up again: what about another Indian restaurant? Finally, it was decided to close Travertino, the Italian restaurant, and open Omya, a modern Indian restaurant with Alfred Prasad (who first won a Michelin star in London a decade ago) as the consulting chef. Rooftop bars had become the rage all over the world during the last decade, at least partly because most hotels had forbidden guests from smoking indoors. The Oberoi, New Delhi had shut down the Skylark Bar in the 1980s and turned the space into a banquet room. But now, Biki decided to revive the bar. Only it wouldn’t be called Skylark, but would have the more contemporary name of Cirrus9.

As impressive as these changes were, the heart of the hotel remained the rooms. The Oberoi Group hired Adam Tihany, one of the world’s leading hotel designers, to conceive of large rooms that seemed in tune with the times but were still comfortable and luxurious. Tihany came up with a design that used the space imaginatively while doing nothing to obscure the magnificent views of the monuments and the greens of the golf course. These were not just among the largest hotel rooms in India; they were also the most elegant.

From the day it opened, The Oberoi, New Delhi has been a resounding success. For the citizens of Delhi, it has been like getting an old friend back. For visitors of the city, it has been a luxury experience without parallel; this is now one of the world’s greatest luxury hotels.

Times change and dreams change. Mohan Singh Oberoi wanted to build a modern 20th-century hotel that was the equal of anything that global companies were opening in the rest of the world. His son wanted to build on the foundations of his father’s dream and update it for the 21st century. Biki’s vision was of a 21st-century hotel that was even better than anything that international hotel companies were doing.

Two men, a father and son. Two dreams, one built on the other. And one hotel: elegant, timeless and a symbol of Indian hospitality and global luxury at their best.

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