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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 05 March 2024

Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi dies at 94: Exacting nitpicker leaves behind a legacy of luxury

Known to the world as Biki Oberoi, the uber luxe hotelier carved a niche for himself by inspiring an aura of elegance and gentility in the grand sweep of Oberoi hotels from Marrakesh in Morocco to Udaipur’s Udaivilas, Calcutta’s Grand, and the beach resort at Lombok in Indonesia

The Telegraph Published 15.11.23, 07:51 AM
Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi

Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi The Telegraph

The Prince of Hospitality is no more. Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, who redefined luxury hospitality in India with a nitpicking passion for detail, died on Tuesday at the age of 94. He is survived by son Vikramjit, daughters Natasha and Anastasia, and nephew Arjun.

Known to the world as Biki Oberoi, the uber luxe hotelier carved a niche for himself by inspiring an aura of elegance and gentility in the grand sweep of Oberoi hotels from Marrakesh in Morocco to Udaipur’s Udaivilas, Calcutta’s Grand, and the beach resort at Lombok in Indonesia.

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Describing him as a “visionary leader, the Oberoi group said in a statement: “His legacy extends far beyond The Oberoi Group, influencing the hospitality landscape in India and across the globe.”

Biki was born in 1929 in New Delhi and grew up in a world of privilege — and the indulgence of his father, the late Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, who famously asked him to travel the world and stay at the world’s leading hotels to understand what luxury really meant.

“I never had to work until I was well past 30,” he once said.

He went to St Paul’s boarding school in Jalpahar, Darjeeling, before pursuing further studies in the United Kingdom and Switzerland, where he earned a degree in hotel management at Lausanne.

Biki Oberoi joined EIH, the holding company that housed the Oberoi and Trident hotels, in March 1961. He became the chairman of EIH after the death of his father in 2002. He stepped down from the board in May 2022 and was named Chairman Emeritus.

Old-timers recall how fastidious the hotelier was about the smallest of details, finding flaws and signs of sloppiness, and giving instructions during his walkabout at any of the group’s properties he visited.

“Luxury is all about having everything exactly the way they should be — whether it’s the degree of lighting, the placing of switches, the height of the bathtub or the colour of the curtain,” Oberoi once said.

During his tenure as the executive chairman for nearly two decades, preceded by another 20 years of leadership as joint managing director, he built a number of iconic properties — Rajvilas in Jaipur, Udaivilas in Udaipur, Amarvilas in Agra, Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore, and Wildflower Hall in Shimla to name only a few, in India.

Oberoi was never known to cut corners in developing a property — a trait he acquired from his father who splashed out an outlandish sum of money to acquire the property on reclaimed land that eventually became the Oberoi Mumbai at Nariman Point.

Like his father, Biki tilted towards rich elegance over abundance. “We want to be the best, not the biggest,” — a mantra that he lived by.

“The concept of luxury hospitality was introduced by P.R.S. Oberoi in India. He truly transformed the hospitality landscape of the country, building on the strong foundation laid by his father,” Shib Sanker Mukherji, former vice-chairman of EIH Ltd, who worked closely with the Oberois, told this newspaper.

His six-decade long tenure at the company saw, expectedly, many twists and turns. He successfully thwarted a perceived threat from ITC Ltd, which had cornered a 14.98 per cent stake in EIH, and was at one time at the threshold of triggering an open offer.

He set the corporate cocktail circuit abuzz with the way he stymied the takeover threat by roping in the Ambanis of the Reliance group in 2010 to whom he sold a 14.21 per cent stake for Rs 1,021 crore. Under the arrangement, management and control remained with the Oberoi family though the EIH board was recast to include Nita Ambani and Manoj Modi, Mukesh Ambani’s close friend and associate.

ITC continues to hold a 16.13 per cent stake in EIH and has always described the holding as a long term investment with no intentions of mounting a hostile takeover.

He received a number of awards but was personally proud of the Padma Vibhushan — India’s second highest civilian honour — conferred on him by the India government in 2008.

Condolences

In a joint statement, Vikram and Arjun Oberoi said: “A luminary in the hospitality industry, Mr. Oberoi’s legacy transcends borders, leaving an indelible mark on the global landscape. As we mourn the loss of a true icon, we also aim to celebrate the extraordinary legacy P.R.S. Oberoi leaves behind. In the coming days, we will share details of our plans to honour and remember him.”

Reactions poured in on social media too. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee took to X to say, “Saddened by the demise of Padma Vibhushan PRS Oberoi, chairman of the Oberoi group, and the hospitality tycoon of India. He was trained in Darjeeling and his achievements have been inextricably linked to Bengal. We shall all feel the irreparable loss.”

Anil Agarwal, chairman of Vedanta Group wrote on X: “I fondly remember the time I spent with him in his farmhouse in Delhi. What an entrepreneur he was. He put Indian luxury hospitality on the international map … Mere liye, brand Oberoi defines the very best in hotels and produces the very best people in hospitality.”

Naveen Jindal, chairman of JSPL, recalled Oberoi’s interest in Polo. “He was a great supporter of Polo in India. As Patron of the Indian Polo Association, he did a lot to promote the sport,” Jindal, himself a Polo enthusiast, posted on X.

Anand Mahindra wrote: “He was a class act. Period.”

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