There is something to be said for the will to survive through hardship. Other hospitality groups should take note of the Oberoi Group story. India's luxury hotel group is one of the subjects in Skift’s recent sixth anniversary book, For the Long Haul, Lessons on Business Longevity, whose chapters we are excerpting for you here in the coming weeks.
It all started with a plague.
In 1922, 24-year-old Mohan Singh Oberoi fled his hometown of Bhaun, India, in the Punjab province, now a region of Pakistan. He was penniless, but his mother, who raised him alone, urged him to escape the virulent outbreak overtaking their village and find work in Shimla, India, a nearby city. He spent the summer rambling around the countryside, desperately trying to land a job. One day, he walked into the Hotel Cecil and asked if there were any openings. To Oberoi’s surprise, the manager hired him as a front desk clerk.
A decade later, in 1934, Oberoi had an opportunity to acquire the hotel, and mortgaged his wife’s jewelry in order to buy the property. His next acquisition came in quick succession, after a massive cholera outbreak killed over 1,500 people in Calcutta, India, one of the country’s largest cities. After 100 foreign guests died from drinking water at The Grand Hotel, one of Calcutta’s most elegant destinations, the property was forced to shut down. The owners of the hotel were drowning in debt, and Oberoi took over the property in a leveraged deal for 7,000 rupees a month (about $53,000 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation).
Two years later, at the start of World War II, Calcutta became a major hub for British troops, and the army desperately needed housing. Oberoi opened his doors. The hotel was at capacity for years, and he made his fortune. “Cashiers unable to count the money were shoving it under the carpet to resume the task next morning,” journalist Bachi Karkaria wrote in Dare to Dream, her biography of the hotelier. In 1941, the British government rewarded him with the title Rai Bahadur, which roughly translates to “honorable prince,” for his services. “Taking over a cholera-ridden hotel had been a landmark in my career,” Oberoi wrote of the experience.
These initial acquisitions jump-started Oberoi’s legacy in high-end travel, ushering in a new way of looking at hospitality in India. The Oberoi Group has stood as a cornerstone of India’s luxury hospitality industry for over half a century and currently has 33 locations across Asia and the Middle East. “Their backbone has always been in the delivery of service,” says Manav Thadani, chairman of the Asia-Pacific market at HVS, a hospitality consultancy. “When you go into their hotel, their quality is at the level of the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton, the mainstream brands in the luxury space — any Oberoi hotel takes them head-on at every level.”
Building an Empire of Luxury
Oberoi’s sense of luxury is pervasive — even extreme. One of their most luxurious properties, the Oberoi Udaivilas in Rajasthan, where a suite runs $14,000 per night, was voted the best hotel in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2015. Guests are carted to the hotel in a private, man-paddled boat; peacocks, wild boars, and white-spotted deer roam free on the 50-acre plot; and guests can ride camels on the grounds. There’s even an 18th-century palace on site. “It’s a pretty tough thing to be named both the top hotel brand and have the top-ranked hotel in the same year, but Oberoi Hotels & Resorts have made it to the top spots,” Travel + Leisure editor Nathan Lump said after the announcement.
At The Oberoi Amarvilas, two hours by train north of Delhi, guests are greeted with cold towels and drinks, and bowls of water infused with rose petals and sandalwood are stationed throughout the hotel for aromatic effect. Each patron even has their own private butler.
What started as a dedication to perfection from a young hotelier in northern India has blossomed into one of the most respected hospitality corporations in the world. “The Oberoi Group is seen as being among the most top-tier companies in the hospitality business,” says Sean Hennessey, assistant professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, and president of Lodging Advisors, a hotel consulting firm. “They are iconic in terms of quality of properties and service levels.” Today, Oberoi is widely known as the father of the Indian hotel industry. For anyone who travels to the subcontinent on a regular basis, his name is synonymous with one of the best hotel experiences that money can buy.
Not only did Oberoi establish himself, he moved to expand his empire as quickly as possible. Riding the wave of his high-profile investment in Calcutta, in 1943 he bought a controlling stake in Associated Hotels of India, then the country’s leading hospitality company, gaining authority over a chain of hotels throughout five cities in India and Pakistan. From there, he bought up and remodeled already-existing hotels in Nepal, Egypt, Australia, and other countries. “Building a successful hotel is always in the quality of the product, no matter where it is located,” says Thadani of HVS, adding that Oberoi’s vision of hospitality translated seamlessly into other geographical markets simply by focusing on a simple bottom line: customer service. “If a rich sheikh or businessman stays at an Oberoi property and loves the quality of service, they’ll be thrilled to see the brand back in their own country.”
Over the years, Oberoi specialized in buying undervalued properties and, sticking to his guns, refurbishing them into his image of a modern and progressive 20th-century hotel. “They are uniquely focused on their core brand,” says NYU’s Hennessey. “They have avoided what most other companies have gravitated to, which is creating an array of brands to try and meet all the needs of a traveler, to capture the specific travel wallet in a given location. It’s impressive for them to dedicate to a singular vision, which has proven successful for them so far.”
Oberoi also understood that the longevity of his brand was not contingent upon how fast and how far he could expand, but rather relied on the accumulative quality of his properties. “I realised that it was not good enough to keep launching new ventures if old ones were allowed to suffer. Too often efficiency and high standards once established are taken for granted,” Oberoi once wrote. “This is a great mistake and my constant aim has been to preserve the reputation of my hotels at the highest possible level.” He was obsessed with detail — even, it’s rumored, keeping flower stems at a uniform sleeve length in his lobbies and restaurants. “It’s not common to come across a brand where every hotel on their roster has this level of consistency,” says Thadani. “I can promise you that, with other hotel groups, you’ll find one or two properties that are more or less average. But not with The Oberoi Group.”
Early on, Oberoi’s upward trajectory in the market also relied on modernizing his brand by going against cultural norms of the time. In 1957, after opening the Oberoi International in New Delhi, he became the first hotelier to employ women in India. He replaced the half-dozen male servants that were commonplace for cleaning rooms with female housekeepers armed with vacuum cleaners. Members of the Indian government balked at the idea. “Parliament shuddered in righteous indignation, honorable members conjuring up visions of lewd guests hollering, ‘As you make my bed, so shall you lie on it,’” Karkaria wrote in Dare to Dream. Oberoi even adjusted his own appearance by shaving off his beard, normally a mandatory grooming standard for Sikhs.
The group was also the first chain in India to offer in-room dining and international cuisine options for guests. Additionally, staff members are granted unusual freedom when it comes to dealing with guest problems: they are each allotted 1,000 rupees per day to use however they want, as long as it’s funnelled into the guest experience. The Oberoi Group even became the first hotel company to offer an internal hospitality school, which admits 50 students per year, ensuring its supply of expert employees.
“When you meet with an Oberoi candidate, that individual stands out,” says Thadani, who has hired graduates of the program for his consulting team. “The grooming and communication skills are far better than average. You can blindfold my eyes and I can talk to that person and I just know they are from Oberoi. They are so much more polished.”
These were the concepts that, to the company’s founder, drove innovation and success in hospitality, rather than adhering to a blanket determination for accumulating wealth. “You think of money and you cannot do the right thing,” Oberoi would tell people. ‘”But money will always come once you do the right thing, so the effort should be to do the right thing.” For Oberoi, it was this methodology that gave his brand longevity, and thrust it into the spotlight as India’s second-largest hotel corporation.
When Oberoi died in 2002, at the age of 103, The Oberoi Group held over three dozen hotels in six countries. “Some people refer to them as my Empire,” Oberoi wrote before his death. “A hotel is a small nation in itself and a chain does perhaps merit the name of Empire. This empire is not an imperialistic one, but rather based on the idea of rendering service,” he added. “This has always been my wish and my endeavour.”
After his death, Oberoi’s son, P.R.S. Oberoi, took over as chief executive of his father’s corporation, and held the position until 2015 when his own son, Vikram Oberoi, took over. Although the company reigns have been handed down the family chain, the brand’s ethos has stayed the same. “When my grandfather started his first hotel,” explains Vikram Oberoi, “one of the key principles that he followed that we continue to believe in today is best expressed in his own words: ‘The idea was never merely to make money. The compulsion was to think big and provide quality to our guests.”
To those watching from the outside, the trickle-down of mentality is a core element of the brand. “The Oberoi Group has always been about quality as opposed to quantity,” says Thadani. “That has been the original hospitality of the founder, and followed up by his son. And the next generation, the third generation, is also taking the same foot forward.”
Enduring Through Tragedy
It would be six years after its founder’s death, however, that India’s most unlikely hospitality superpower would endure one of its greatest challenges yet: the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Just before 10 p.m. on November 26, 2008, two gunmen carrying automatic weapons entered the Kandahar restaurant in the Oberoi-Trident Hotel in Mumbai, India. They raised their rifles and immediately began firing into the crowd of patrons. It was part of a large-scale, organized terror attack spanning 12 sites in India’s financial capital, focused primarily on killing British and American tourists. At the 550-room hotel, the gunmen rounded up over 80 hostages and hunkered down for a multi-day siege. Two days later, over 40 hostages were freed, but 32 staff and guests were killed. In total, the operation claimed 164 lives.
The terrorist attack was something never before experienced by the company. To make matters worse, the hotel in Mumbai accounted for nearly one-fifth of the company’s revenue and was a flagship location for the brand. The financial crash of the same year also contributed to a drop in tourism to the country. “We were affected severely,” then-CEO P.R.S. Oberoi told The New York Times in 2010. “Then the attacks happened and [Mumbai] emptied out.” To some, the real trial was how The Oberoi Group would respond to the travesty. Could the same principles that brought them to this level of esteem also help bring them out of the catastrophe?
They vowed to bounce back quickly — to persevere after such a horrific event. “There is definitely a huge amount of sadness in everybody’s mind,” said Rattan Keswani, president of The Oberoi Group’s Trident Hotels, shortly after the attack. He added that the staff was committed to reopening the hotel as soon as possible. “A guest walking in will find no trace of what happened. We believe the time has come to look forward,” he said. “Now, the fears of travelers and governments must be allayed so people will return to Mumbai.” It was a pivotal and testing moment for the company — one that could change its trajectory forever.
On April 20, 2010, almost two years after the infamous terror attack, The Oberoi-Trident Hotel reopened for business. The renovations costs $45 million, and included white marble flooring, sourced from the Greek island of Thassos, to replace the previously red-granite-lined lobby which was destroyed by gunfire and grenades during the siege. The restaurant where many guests and staff perished was renamed Fenix, a reference to the mythological Phoenix who famously rose from the ashes. “It symbolizes [Mumbai’s] recovery,” P.R.S. Oberoi proclaimed after the opening. “The wounds have healed.” Tourism also bounced back, with 1.56 million foreign tourists visiting the country in the first quarter of 2010, up 13 percent from the previous year. People were starting to come back to India again.
P.R.S. Oberoi, then 81, was on site for much of the flagship property’s renovation. He inspected the Greek marble, and personally rejected 70 percent of the tiles the company received, citing the need for perfection. Like his father, his dedication to minute detail was extreme — the reason why his family’s company has continued to be successful. If they were going to reopen the Mumbai property, there was no room for error. He commissioned handmade coffee tables inlaid with marble and precious stones for guest rooms and suites, built by descendants of craftsmen who worked on the Taj Mahal. Dozens of security guards now watch over the property, and guests’ vehicles are checked at an iron gate before being let onto the grounds.
In many ways, it was their longstanding ethos that helped them endure the tragedy. “From the evening of the attacks in November 2008 until the day The Oberoi Mumbai reopened, every employee stood by the hotel and contributed in every way possible to get the hotel ready to welcome its guests back,” says Vikram Oberoi. “Their sense of ownership towards the company and the brand manifests itself in the manner in which they conduct themselves and represent their hotel to guests.”
By focusing on quality — by coming back from the attack with a grander, more luxurious hotel than ever — their brand stayed strong, and customers stayed loyal. “If someone is an Oberoi fan, it’s very hard to break their loyalty to them,” says Thadani. “I was back there within a month after it reopened. At the end of the day, the attack would have happened anyway.”
Since the attack, the group’s hotels have been continually defined and praised by their opulence and high degree of service — overshadowing, to some extent, the attack in Mumbai. The group launched three new properties in 2017 and 2018, including a well-received resort and spa in New Chandigarh, India, and unveiled an overhaul of their New Delhi property after a $100 million renovation.
“Oberoi Hotels & Resorts has seen a year-on-year growth in revenue of approximately 10 percent during the last three years,” says Vikram Oberoi. “This has been driven by improvements in both occupancy levels and the average room rate.”
Much like their founder, whose rags-to-riches tale of fame and fortune has embedded itself in the lore of every Oberoi hotel, the will to endure through hardship — and the ultimate goal of brand longevity — is what has kept the hotel group at the pinnacle of India’s tourism industry. “This has been no mean achievement for the village boy,” Oberoi once wrote, “who left his plague-infested village in search of a job.”
It was this off-chance opportunity to be a lowly clerk that led to such profound advancement not only in India’s hotel industry, but in how the rest of the world views the country’s offerings in the realm of travel. All Oberoi had to do was walk in the front door, find the manager of the hotel, and say, “Hey, can I have a job? You won’t be disappointed — I promise.”
Ian Frisch has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, and Bloomberg Businessweek. His first book, on the secret lives of magicians, will be published in 2019 by Dey Street Books.
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Photo credit: The hotel swimming pool of the Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur, Rajasthan. Wikimedia