The Legacy of the Luxury Hotelier

Khushwant Singh


‘My father was an ardent fan of Indira Gandhi. The day she was killed, he wanted to go pay his last respects. He asked me to come along, but I refused since I wasn’t one of her greatest admirers,’ says Bikki after which Rai Bahadur went by himself. Krishna Singh, a senior employee of the Oberoi Group, accompanied him. Rai Bahadur did not wait for a VIP pass to be organized and went to Teen Murti where Indira Gandhi’s body lay in state. Like lakhs of others he stood in the queue for hours as people crowded to pay their last respects. 

Soon, the eighty-six-year-old Rai Bahadur and Krishna were trapped in the stampede that ensued at the venue. The crowds had to be lathi charged, tear-gassed and Rai Bahadur and Krishna faced the brunt. Tired, sweating profusely he rather than coming back to his farm at Kapashera, which the family had finally made home, he went to the Intercontinental where he suffered a stroke. A few months later, realizing that his body could no longer take the physical duress, he handed over the reins of the Oberoi to his only son. 

‘It was in this very house he suggested to the board that Prithvi Raj Oberoi be given the charge of managing director and vice chairman of the company,’ says Bikki sharing the tragic circumstances under which he took command of the Oberoi saga, which by now comprised multiple hotels, resorts, cruises and a renowned catering institute. A story he would take forward in a manner that would redefine fine luxury and put Oberoi on the global map of the world’s best hotels, diversify into other travel segments with Trident and Novotel. This would, in the process, attract international recognition to the group and especially Bikki, including personal awards as high as the coveted Padma Vibhushan (India’s second highest civilian award) and Grand Officer of the Alalaoui Wissam, the second highest award in Morocco. None other than His Majesty King Mohammaed VI of Morocco conferred it personally.


Founder of the Modern Luxury Hotel

When the Hotels magazine presented the ‘2010 Corporate Hotelier of the World’ award to Bikki Oberoi and credited him with growing the company into one of the world’s most prestigious luxury hotel groups, perhaps what it did not know was a conversation which had led to this feat. The iconic Mohan Singh Oberoi, who passed away in 2003 at the ripe age of 103, had dreamt of having one his hotels as the top in the world, which he shared with his son. He told his son that the Oriental hotel in Bangkok had been rated as the best hotel in the world twice consecutively. ‘I think we should have one hotel at least that is rated as the best in the world. Why don’t you do something about it?’ 

Raj Vilas, Jaipur is what Bikki got involved in pronto and the Oberoi was to redefine luxury yet again. The tale is long he says, as they had to start from scratch, which included the acquisition of land, the permissions and so on, but what is fascinating is how the name ‘Vilas’ meaning happiness or luxury came about. According to Bikki, the name was suggested at a meeting of marketing and senior executives. ‘I did not want to call it The Oberoi Jaipur because this was extra special and different.’ 

Built over a thirty-two acres oasis, this royal resort’s setting in impeccably landscaped gardens, magnificent trees and exotic birdlife was unlike the rest of the Oberoi hotels in the big cities and had to be distinguished. According to Bikki at that meeting a young executive suggested the name Raj Vilas to which the president of the company objected and said Vilas was the name of every second hotel on Marine Drive. 

‘So what?’ said the chairman. ‘Let us name it the Raj Vilas,’ he said. Oberoi was affixed later for branding purposes and the name that was arrived at read as Oberoi, Raj Vilas. That it went on to be declared the best hotel in the world the year it commenced operations is testimony to the fact that Bikki achieved what he had set his mind upon. And there has been no looking back, ever since as Bikki redefined luxury, be it another vilas or a Wild Flower Hall in Kufri, Himachal Pradesh. And each of these resorts with their unique story, architecture and ambience went to acquire a unique place in the world hospitality industry. The debut of the Oberoi Group uber luxury and leisure sector saw every property acquiring the world best title.

Khushwant Singh