Home / Opinion / Views /  Biki Oberoi's exit heralds the end of larger-than-life hoteliers

The news of legendary hotelier PRS ‘Biki’ Oberoi stepping down from EIH Ltd signals not just the end of his era of half a century or so but also that of the larger-than-life hoteliers such as Ajit B Kerkar of the Taj Group (IHCL) and Captain Nair of Leela Hotels who steered hotel businesses in India.

In many ways, Oberoi is one of the last of that breed of founder-promoter-hoteliers who stood out for his uncanny eye for detail: From sussing out precisely what on a dining table needed to be fine-tuned, the way staff dressed, and a lobby’s decor to his personal sense of style that combined finely-cut suits with a penchant for Cuban cigars. Oberoi's stepping down from the award-winning chain that his father built and which he grew to make an exemplary icon of classic Indian hospitality in fact heralds a new phase for the industry as it coincides with similar changes in other groups. The hotel sector in India which once comprised leading chains such as the Oberois, Taj, ITC and the Leela Group of Hotels is today competing with multinational operators such as Four Seasons, the Intercontinental Hotel Group, the Hilton Group, the Accor Group, the Marriott Group, the Hyatt Group and others. The new hotel chains already have scaled up significantly with the asset-light management contract model in which the brand licenses local operators who in turn run the properties.

Over the last two decades, this has not only recast the industry, increasing considerably its spread and reach across the country but also changed the way customer service and the personalization of high-end hospitality once worked. Now, when a hotel CEO walks into a hotel with guests in it, it’s more like a management consultant taking on a project to deliver on the twin objectives of profit and efficiency.

And when the job is done, the manager moves on in a matter of a few years to make way for another leader with a newer set of targets. Rarely does the MD of a large chain now approach a dining guest to ask if the soup is fine and if they are feeling well looked after. In the past, a hotel boss would serve as a mayor of a city with an extensive network and a platinum Rolodex that would make executive search firms turn green with envy.

Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of Four Seasons, was legendary for how he built the company, and summed it down to one principle: “Treat people the way you want to be treated." There have been others such as Bill Marriott Jr., Jay Pritzker –– all equally legendary.

Oberoi has always maintained that when it comes to hospitality “less is more", in a reference to avoiding too much expansion or planting too many flags and opening as many hotels as possible and across as many price points as the market would allow. It's been a philosophy that at least in some part the EIH chain held good too, despite the overwhelming number of five-star hotels today that are run by real estate developers and corporations with little experience in the hospitality trade.

The operating styles are no longer the same now; the shift is in part inspired by the advent of American hotel chains that have aligned practices with trend lines overseas. The hospitality industry at larger now looks to follow a model that zooms in on American-style management philosophies, a focus on the bottom-line, colder but more efficient operations and an increasingly impersonal experience enhanced by the rise of technology and other factors in hotels. It can be argued that the pressure to report great numbers at every quarterly results conference is the driving agenda now and not customer satisfaction.

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