By Lubna Hamdan
Three generations after Rai Bahadur M.S. Oberoi started his hospitality career as a doorman, the five-star Oberoi and Trident hotels are thriving. The renowned Indian family meets Arabian Business in Ajman, where Oberoi Al Zorah resort recently opened.
Vikram Oberoi was born in a hotel.
“I grew up in hotels. I didn’t have a permanent home till quite late [in life],” he says.
“It’s difficult when you look back on it because you didn’t have the same freedom that you would have in a home, but I think if you’re born there, you don’t know any difference. So for me, it was normal.”
But there is nothing normal about Oberoi. Fifty three years later, the CEO and managing director sits at the helm of the Delhi-based EIH Limited — India’s third largest hospitality chain — and Oberoi’s family business.
Holding 32 hotels of five-star brands Oberoi and Trident, the group also boasts two cruise ships in the Nile and a motor vessel in the backwaters of Kerala.
Oberoi sits cross-legged in the group’s most recent addition, the Oberoi Al Zorah Resort in Ajman, nestled in 1 million sq m of protected forest and home to almost 60 species of birds. The resort boasts a championship golf course, green mangroves, azure lagoons and long white sandy beaches.
“What’s lovely about Al Zorah is you can sit at a restaurant by the beach and you see nothing. And there’s a lot to be said about silence. We live in a world that is busy, noisy in many ways. Having peace is today a luxury,” he says, looking out to the horizon.
For a moment, Oberoi seems as though he is lost in thought, yet appears to be in his element.
Does hospitality run in his veins, we ask? “My parents never said, ‘This is what you have to do’. They never forced me into the business. I always had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. They said, ‘Do whatever your passion is’,” he says.
But it is clear that hospitality was always on the cards for Oberoi.
It all started with his grandfather Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of the family empire.
The famous story goes that Rai travelled to the centre of India in the 1920s to apply for a reputable job in the government, only to be rejected and left with little money.
Sitting on the side of the road, he noticed a hotel across the street and built up the courage to approach its doorman for employment. Though dressed in a sharp suit, Rai was again rejected.
In what seemed to be a twist of fate, the hotel’s general manager approached him a few hours later, seemingly impressed by his sense of style, and offered him the doorman’s job.
Needless to say, Rai excelled in the role, going on to become owner of that very hotel. “That’s how we got into hotels,” says Oberoi, the corners of his mouth curving upwards.
But his grandfather went further than that. He bought more accommodation and instead of solely promoting his hotels, he focussed on promoting the destinations, boosting an almost non-existent luxury market in India from a $100 a night average price tag to a $1,000 a night playfield.
The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, built on the 200-year-old hunting grounds of Maharana of Mewar in India’s north-west, remains to this day one of the country’s most luxurious hotels. Located on the bank of Lake Pichola, it stretches across 50 acres, including 20 acres of wildlife sanctuary housing deer and wild boars.
Rai set a new benchmark in India’s hospitality market and attracted a whole new breed of customers.
For Oberoi, the virgin hospitality market in Ajman is a chance to do exactly the same.
Despite having a hotel in Dubai’s Business Bay, the group found more opportunity to grow in Ajman.
Arjun Oberoi, managing director of development and executive director, says the group is hoping to triple the $200 average room price per night in the UAE’s smallest emirate, geographically.
“A lot of these destinations are overbuilt... Unlike Dubai, [Ajman] is really a virgin territory. But it takes time, no doubt. You have to be patient. This business is not about the short term. A hotel today is not like an electronic device. It has to sustain itself and evolve and be relevant for the customers of tomorrow,” he says.
“Many of our hotels have established themselves in new destinations. They’ve created a market for themselves.
"We’re not tagging onto somebody; we’re leading.”
And the group is doing so across the globe. Keen on expanding its portfolio, EIH has entered into management contracts for two luxury properties planned for Doha, Qatar: a 250-key hotel in West Bay and 148-key serviced apartments in Lusail.
Oman is also on the bucket list within the GCC, while beyond the region, the group plans to open a hotel in Marrakesh by the end of 2017 and another in Casablanca in late 2020.
Other projects include a 35-key jungle resort in Masai Mara, Kenya, and two hotels in Thailand.
What is one thing they all have in common? Their uniqueness, according to Arjun.
“If we open one or two hotels a year, we’re quite busy. We’ve never aimed to be in the mass market. It’s really about providing very special hotels and experiences. It takes time; it’s not a cookie cutter,” he says.
“And of course in India, there are many opportunities, but we will continue to pursue those as we go along.”
The group, whose hotels see over 40 percent repeat guests globally, is hoping to achieve double-digit growth in its top line hotels in order to have profitable returns, though neither Arjun nor Vikram agrees to share more information on revenue.
While chief executive Vikram Oberoi says the group continues to grow occupancy and average room rates across its hotels, he confesses the business environment remains challenging.
One of the challenges, finding talent, was made easier with the set-up of the Oberoi training school, which Vikram suggests “is harder to get into than Harvard business school”.
“We invest heavily in learning and development. We have the Oberoi training school that Harvard did a case study on — it’s being taught at Harvard business school as we speak — and we were talking to two of the professors from there, and they asked us how many people apply to the Oberoi school.
"We said we get roughly 15,000 applicants at the school every year. We take only 60. And they said it’s actually harder to get into the Oberoi school than it is to get into Harvard. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what he said based on numbers,” says Oberoi, laughing.
Yet true or false, one cannot deny the Oberoi empire made a name for itself since it grew its portfolio from a single small hotel in Shimla in 1930. Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi might have fallen into hospitality by coincidence or fortune almost ten decades ago, but its current chief executive is certain he, himself, did not.
“You have to contribute and make a difference… If you don’t do that then you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. And I don’t think it comes down to family or otherwise. As professionals, it’s important that we make a difference in what we do. We add value and contribute to the success of an organisation,” he says.
“You have to do what you really enjoy. You have to look forward to what you do every morning when you wake up. Because the only way to excel is if you enjoy what you do.”
Oberoi’s stunning presence on the global hospitality scene would suggest the family enjoys very much what it does.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.