New Delhi: As a child, he witnessed Allied pilots use his father’s hotel in Calcutta during the second world war and six-and-half-decades later saw a dastardly terrorist attack all but destroy his flagship hotel in Mumbai.
PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi, who died on Tuesday morning at the age of 94 years, was no less than an industry legend whose name was enough to add a touch of grandeur to any hotel property across the world. Inheriting India’s first five-star hotel from his father, he changed the face of the Indian hospitality industry as he turned his group of the same name into one of India’s best known luxury hotel groups.
In 1984, he took over a nine-hotel chain from his father and The Oberoi Group founder Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi. Since then, PRS Oberoi has steered the hospitality chain through its ups and downs.
The group now has hotels, cruises and resorts spread across seven countries under three brands Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, Trident Hotels and Maiden Hotel.
A hotel magnate who embodied fine living, his death brings to an end two generations of the family that built the Oberoi empire into an Indian hospitality powerhouse.
Oberoi, who was the executive chairman of EIH Limited, the flagship company of The Oberoi Group, passed on the baton of his group in May 2022. His nephew Arjun is now the executive chairman of the group while son Vikramjit is the CEO.
The group had humble beginnings. Born to a modestly wealthy family in 1898 in Bhaun village in Punjab province of Pakistan, his father worked as a front desk clerk at The Cecil (now The Oberio Cecil), a small hotel in Shimla, before taking a loan against his family wealth including the wife’s jewellery, to buy his first property, Clarke’s Hotel, also in Shimla, in 1934.
Four years later, he purchased the lease for the Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand) in what was then Calcutta, which was on sale after a cholera epidemic.
In 1943, he bought Associated Hotels of India, becoming the first Indian to own the country’s largest upmarket hotel chain, with properties including Shimla’s Cecil Hotel where he had worked as a clerk.
When his father was setting up the hotel business, Biki was sent to St Paul’s School in Darjeeling in 1939 and after finishing school in 1946 to London to study chartered accountancy. He travelled to France and Switzerland and worked in hotels there to gain experience.
It was in 1942, he witnessed Allied pilots, who were fighting Japan during the second world war, make the Grand Hotel as a base.
In 1954, he was given his first hotel to run – Maidens in New Delhi and then Grand Hotel in Calcutta. He was also given charge of four hotels in Pakistan that had come as part of the AHI acquisition. However, the Pakistan government took over those properties after the 1965 war.
Not to be let down, Biki worked with his elder brother Tilak ‘Tikki’ Raj Singh Oberoi, moving into industrial-scale hotels with the opening of their main property in the national capital in 1965. It was India’s first modern hotel with swimming pools, four or five restaurants and 320 rooms.
Associated Hotels of India Ltd was merged with what was then East India Hotels Ltd (now EIH Ltd) in 1968, bringing into the fold The Oberoi Grand, Calcutta; Maidens Hotel, New Delhi; and The Oberoi Cecil, Shimla. The next landmark was the construction of a Mumbai hotel, now known as the Trident, in 1973 and its sister hotel on the same site, The Oberoi, in 1986.
Tikki died in 1984. His son Arjun is now the executive chairman of the group.
That year, their father suffered a stroke and passed on the baton of the group to Biki. Under him, Oberoi went on an expansion sphere – entering into a contract to operate all snack bars and restaurants at Mumbai airport in 1986, and listing GDRs on the London Stock Exchange in 1994.
Cigar-smoking Biki, who was known to take his own towels and bring along cooks to cities where he did not own a hotel, in 1988 launched a new brand, Trident when a new hotel, which was five-star but not a luxury property, was opened in Chennai.
The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur opened in 1998 and put Indian hospitality on the world luxury travel map. A night’s stay in 1998 cost a then-unthinkable Rs 8,000 and continues to be one of the most expensive resorts in the country. This was followed by similar iconic properties in Agra, Udaipur and Ranthambore (Amarvilas, Udaivilas and Vanyavilas, respectively).
Besides offering ultra-luxury, the chain offered unmatched service. As these properties gained credibility, so did Oberoi’s reputation and his group was often referred to as a gold standard in the industry.
When Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008, Oberoi-Trident hotel was one of the properties attacked. Two terrorists, who spent two days holed up in the Oberoi killing about 20 guests and 11 staff members, destroyed the entire interior of the hotel. Oberoi took a personal interest in redesigning the property which opened 18 months later.
“It is with deep sadness that we inform the peaceful passing of PRS Oberoi, Chairman Emeritus of The Oberoi Group, earlier today. A luminary in the hospitality industry, Oberoi’s legacy transcends borders, leaving an indelible mark on the global landscape,” a company statement said.
PRS Oberoi was born in New Delhi on February 3, 1929. He served as chairman of the company since 1988 until he stepped down in May last year due to ill health.
“PRS Oberoi has decided to relinquish his position as chairman and director of the EIH Associated Hotels Ltd effective May 2, 2022 due to his deteriorating health,” a press release had said at that time.
Besides son Vikramjit, he is survived by daughters Natasha and Anastasia.
A recipient of India’s second highest civilian honour — Padma Vibhushan — in 2008, PRS Oberoi was also awarded the ‘Corporate Hotelier of the World’ by HOTELS magazine in 2010.
The Oberoi brand has come to represent fine luxury hotels. Business India magazine adjudged PRS Oberoi the Businessman of the Year 2008. He received this award for building a world-class premium hospitality brand. In November 2008, he was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for redefining design standards in luxury hotels.
In October 2005, the Hotel Investment Conference Asia Pacific (HICAP), which is the preeminent gathering of hotel investors, investment bankers and leading industry professionals in the region, honoured him with the Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual conference in Hong Kong.
This award was given in recognition of his contribution to the hospitality industry and his pioneering leadership in making The Oberoi Group a global brand by taking the concept of luxury to a new paradigm.
In February 2013, PRS Oberoi was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Management by The All India Management Association.
In his condolence message, Mahindra group’s Anand Mahindra said: “His many achievements were never sufficiently recognised. He made ‘Oberoi’ a global byword for the Indian luxury hospitality experience and the first to put an Indian hotel on the very top of global rankings. He also rallied the group heroically but quietly post the 26/11 attack on their Mumbai flagship. He was a class act. Period.” Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar said he was “without doubt, the man who put Indian hospitality and service on the global map.”