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Prithviraj Raj Singh Oberoi: Inside the mind of India's leading hotelier - The Economic Times

The Economic Times, India, 24th March 2012: As the black BMW 7 series limousine carrying a potential candidate drives out of the sprawling Oberoi farmhouse's porch in Bijwasan near Delhi, Prithviraj Raj Singh 'Bikki' Oberoi looks somewhat displeased. It isn't the candidate that's put him off, but something he spotted on the company sedan: dust.

"What's the use of having such expensive cars if we can't keep them clean? The dust stands out on the black colour. Some guests are very particular about clean cars. Please speak to the GM," he instructs his son Vikram Oberoi, not for the last time that evening.

But apart from such minor irritants, the dapper chairman of the Oberoi Group appears pleased as he settles down to chat in his stately home-office. There's reason to cheer. The results of Market Metrix Hospitality Index, a leading customer feedback survey, are just in and the Oberoi Hotels and Resorts has topped the customer satisfaction score, beating world-class competition like the Four Seasons, Waldorf and Peninsula Hotels.

For a hotelier whose entire philosophy revolves around 'guest-centricity', the results of the survey are yet another vindication that the Bikki Way works. "My father (the late Rai Bahadur MS Oberoi) told me you can make a hotel of pure gold, but nobody will visit unless you provide quality service," he says.

Today, the Oberoi brand is synonymous with luxury, but that wasn't always the case. Back in the mid-1970s, when the financial journal Institutional Investor rated hotels, no Indian establishment ever made the cut, and that rankled Oberoi Sr., who told his son that the quality quotient of their hotels had to be dramatically upped. Bikki Oberoi took his father's words to heart.

Quality service has remained an obsession with him ever since. Critical to comprehending the Bikki Way, is understanding how the man thinks and operates. The devil lies in the details, is an oft-repeated quote in Oberoi folklore. But exactly how deep can the 83-year old chairman of a leading global hotel chain go? Read on. While the management of The Oberoi, Gurgaon was finalising the new restaurant 361, the chairman was asked to choose between three different table tops, each with its own set of cutlery, cruet sets and runners.

Bikki had a tenminute discussion with the team on the three options and in the end, he told the team to run a laundry test to check if the beautiful runners they had chosen would stand strong washes in case they were stained. "Which chairman of a leading global hotel chain will go down to this detail?" asks Kapil Chopra, executive vice president, The Oberoi, Gurgaon and Trident, Gurgaon.

Old hands will tell you that Oberoi is the chief architect, designer, and planner in every one of his hotels. "The architects and designers are not very amused when I don't agree with them, which is quite often. They build for themselves and have big egos. I tell them, build for customers," he says. Consider the latest hotel that's creating waves in the hospitality sector: The Oberoi, Gurgaon.

The octogenarian visited the hotel more than 50 times. "He was involved even at the excavation stage," says Chopra. And he likes to discuss not just the investments and marketing plans, but also AC ducts, furnishings, interiors and varieties of flowers in the garden. Such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a hotel comes from building and operating dozens of them and being a hands-on hotelier for nearly six decades.

Even at this age, the chairman likes to get a first-hand feel of his properties. Last year, he visited all of them, barring Bali and Bhubaneshwar. "In the 1980s, I spent a third of my time in my hotels. The only way to improve service is to go to them very frequently," says Oberoi, who until 1973 literally lived in his hotels. A widely travelled man, even visiting other hotels is no vacation.

He's constantly seeking out ideas for his own chain. 'Subconscious observation' is how Bikki puts it. For example, from Regent, Hong Kong, he picked up the large size of the bathrooms, and from Carlyle, New York, he got the idea for walk-in closets. "We have 6.5-7.5 sq. mtr. closets in our hotels so that you can hang your clothes, put up your suit and tuck away your suitcase," he says, "Others are copying us now."

He also makes note of things that are not to be replicated: like using technology that's too hi-tech. "Recently, I couldn't locate the bedroom switch for half an hour at a hotel. It was frustrating. User friendliness is one thing but too much technology can be intimidating for guests. You should use technology that people use at home," he says. Functionality is an important tenet in the Oberoi rulebook.

There's literally no area that's exempt. Sometimes, he likes to follow the fashion, (larger bathrooms) and at other times, he decides to go against the grain. Even in the case of the ubiquitous bathroom attachments, all properties use just one brand of shower. "People like strong showers and not the rain showers that are in fashion today. I won't give you the name because our competitors will get it," says Oberoi.

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