This was just four years ago. In a chat with Marzban Patel’s Mediascope channel, Rajiv Kaul, who worked extensively at The Oberoi, and later was with The Taj and The Leela, all in the luxury segment, recalled his association with the Great Master of Indian Luxury. With over four decades in the hospitality industry, hotelier Rajiv Kaul has been a very important part of this close-knit fraternity. We bring extracts of this conversation with Priya Pathiyan, Deputy Editor, TravelDine. With the passing on of PRS, earlier in November this year, this interview becomes even more of a fond memory of a senior colleague.
You started your career with the Oberoi School of Hotel Management. Did you meet PRS Oberoi at that time? And what were your initial impressions of him?
The first time we met Mr. Oberoi was at our final interview because he would personally select all the management trainees. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, and I think we started with 9,000 and came down to some 300 people through a series of filters, and then he interviewed us and selected a batch of 16. So, I remember the first time we saw him, he was sitting, but, you know, he was rather Napoleonic, but his, it’s a voice that booms in. He has an aura that you cannot dismiss. Of course, then on the job, when we saw him in the hotel, et cetera, one could clearly see that there was a special aura about him that inspired a lot of strong feelings in the staff.
And what would you recall of that interview then?
There is one standard question, which everybody’s asked, as to why do you want to join hotels? And I think my reply to that was perhaps a little different. I said, I want to join hotels because I want to work in an air-conditioned environment. He smiled and I thought that that was it. And to my surprise, some 20-25 years later we were having dinner and he was in one of his expansive moods, and he told the story to my wife. He asked her, can you imagine his reason for joining hotels with this? I was really flattered that he remembered it even after 25 years and interviewing, you know, thousands of people. But that’s Mr. Oberoi. He has a memory of an elephant.
Please share some anecdotes about him that reveal his true character?
Yes, so I asked him once, I said, Mr. Oberoi, in our batch of 16 people, we couldn’t help noticing that nearly a dozen of us have a common thread of going to public schools, and then coming from a services background or government service background. So that could hardly be a coincidence. He said that, you know, I can train anyone to be a hotelier, but I can’t train someone to be a gentleman. And I thought that was a tremendous insight that he wanted gentleman hoteliers, and that’s where Oberoi Hotels stood apart from others. He has always emphasized on the quality of people. One of the things that a general manager cannot delegate, is that he must sign off on every new employee that is hired because it is a people’s business.
I remember once we had a very important industrialist staying with us in the hotel. Mr. Oberoi happened to be in the lobby. So, I walked across and introduced the two of them. And Mr. Oberoi then later took me aside and said, what were you speaking to him? I said, I was just asking him that I trust he is having a comfortable stay. And so, he says, what did he say? He said, yes. He asks, what did you expect him to say? He says, what kind of a stupid question was that? He said, you should be asking him, what can we do better? There’s no point in asking him if he’s having a comfortable stay. And you know, come to think of it, that’s really what distinguishes Oberoi Hotels because the question that we need to ask of ourselves is, how can we find new ways and better ways to delight our guests? You know, how can you better the guest experience? And you can only better it if you focus on perhaps where there is an area for improvement rather than 10 things that are going right.
You worked with three of the biggest hospitality companies in India. In your experience, what, according to you sets Mr. Oberoi apart as a hotelier? What are the qualities that he has and how do you feel about how he’s influenced the entire world of hospitality?
See, Mr. Oberoi is a hotelier’s hotelier. He is really the oracle, where the bedrock of excellence is service. And Mr. Oberoi has always emphasized on service. Now, service, it starts with warmth, and then it is promptness, and then it goes on to courtesy and then personalized, and finally, it should be anticipatory. So, service is everything. That is something which Mr. Oberoi, you’ll hear him say it number of times a day and his attention to detail is legendary. There are so many stories about how he wants the chicken to be cut into four pieces. He wants French-fries to be blanched before they’re fried. The toast is best made from bread which is one day old, so these are some of his pet peeves that we were raised on.
But he’s absolutely right. If you want the best for your guest, then you’ve got to do it right. And there’s only one way of doing it, right? So that’s something that Mr. Oberoi always emphasized on. In the late 80s as a youngster, some of us were sent to on a trip to see the best hotels in the world. We actually visited these hotels and spent time there to see what is it that makes them what they are, and then bring and incorporate those best practices into Oberoi hotels. I was very fortunate, Mr. Oberoi approved my going to Cornell for my Masters at Cornell in Paris, and I was there for two years. So, when I finished my graduation, I wanted to come back when Mr. Oberoi suggested, no, stay back for another six months and work at the legendary hotels like the Ritz, because that’s the experience that he felt we needed.
Because at that particular time the brand, the Oberoi was being launched, this is 1987. His investment in people is something which is amazing. I mean, you have today, leaders in the hospitality industry across all multiple chains who actually have come from the Oberoi stable. Mr. Oberoi would always say that, I don’t want to be the biggest, I want to be the best. And he was true to that. I remember when I joined the group, 1978, they had some 28 or 30 hotels, and even today, they do not have more than 35 hotels. It was always about quality and being benchmarked with the best. And I think he raised the bar for luxury. It was a matter of great pride for everybody in the industry when Oberoi hotels in 2008 were rated as the number one brand in the world. I must say we were very delighted that we could emulate that, you know, in 2020 and 2021 with Leela being the best. But the inspiration has always been Mr. Oberoi and the Oberoi Hotels because he has always pursued perfection. And perfection is a journey. It’s not a destination. I think there is a passion which clearly you gets indoctrinated into you. And there is a sense of responsibility towards excellence. You know, it is not something to be trifled with. You can do anything, but you must do it well, and it’s not about doing it well, but do it the best possible way that you can do it, because every act of yours is a signature. You know, these are simple things, but Mr Oberoi teaches it to you through personal example, so it stays with you.
So now tell us something about him that possibly nobody knows.
I once asked Mr. Oberoi that what if your father Rai Bahadur was not a hotelier? What profession would you have chosen? And without batting an eye, Mr. Oberoi said, I would’ve been an architect. And people who know him would not be surprised because his knowledge of architecture is amazing. Most of us will struggle when it comes to sections, but he will draw it. He’ll say, this is the way it should be and sometimes it frustrates the architects on the job because he’s telling them exactly those things which they sometimes don’t want to hear.
Is there something that you’d like to say to Mr. Oberoi via this video?
Mr. Oberoi, our grateful thanks. You have been an inspiration to generations of hoteliers, and we can’t thank you enough for the way that you have moulded so many of us. We wish you wonderful years ahead. Please
take good care of yourself. You’re really precious to us all. We hope to celebrate your hundredth birthday. We are looking forward to that. God bless.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A luxury hospitality curator, Rajiv Kaul, with over four decades of experience, has helmed the operations at some of the most iconic properties of Oberoi, Taj, and Leela groups.