PRS: the Luxury Icon, a Lesson in Ensuring Uncompromised Quality

I wrote a piece for the social media, the day PRS Oberoi passed on at the age of 94. A life most well lived, his was an exceptional journey that is difficult to capture. Here is an extended reminiscing of his contribution to Oberoi Hotels, Indian travel and tourism and to all those whose lives he touched, in so many ways.

A legend passed on, this historic 14th November morning. PRS rode over, like the proverbial colossus, on all that he surveyed, looked at, built, nurtured, he is one of the kinds who are recognised as legends in their lifetime!

He was held in awe and reverence, his aura exuded energy and confidence – in his beliefs, his determination and his zero tolerance to shortcuts. He was unforgiving when people showed a lack of application; deep within him he had a heart of a child, striving to excel, never giving up in his relentless urge for excellence in all that he did. He little knew else; fastidious to every detail, including the styling of every menu printed at even the smallest of his hotels. His stylisation of the ‘small caps’ in every invite, the deliberate understated elegance that he brought to corporate identity, was only the tips of the iceberg named ‘quality’.

P.R.S. Oberoi receiving the Padma Vibhushan from Smt. Pratibha Patil – Former President of India.

He became synonymous with luxury travel in India; the Oberoi brand went higher notches globally – so much so, when he started the ‘vilas’, there were few takers at the prices he found them sustainable. These were his modern-day answer to the erstwhile palaces of the maharajah, but the ‘experience’ was what had never been offered before in India. Some felt they were destined to a not too happy outcome, but then the word spread, they picked custom, and soon became iconic in themselves. His ’vilas’ brand was the first experiential offerings which later got emulated by others; the brand logic with him remained supreme. It is a testimony to PRS, that ‘The Oberoi’ name retains its magic, in fact, has become more iconic and legendary like its global peers like Hilton and others.

In the 70s, as an old Oberoi alumni recalled, Rai Bahadur and later PRS must have been the first Indian MNCs to go international. The Taj then was more focussed on within India, there was no Infosys and the like; it was hospitality and The Oberoi that were truly among the first international giants.

P.R.S Oberoi receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh at The Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excelence.

Within, as a group, he preferred to focus on quality with which he knew no compromise. He was not in the numbers game, initially he did lose some of the managed properties. But then it was apparent that he preferred to work in sync with owners who shared his vision.

PRS was an icon, became one a long time ago, so much so that a meeting with him was considered a privilege. I had this privilege a couple of times. He was immaculate, as always, just that personality that he groomed each and every hotelier that went through his training and ever vigilant gaze. So, a typical Oberoi ‘type’ is what we would see across the Oberoi alumni, as also in the gait of both Vikram, his son, and Arjun, his nephew. Just as in many of the old Oberoi hands – the likes of late Anil Madhok, Rajiv Kaul, Sanjiv Malhotra, to name a few. All, I have seen, have the same perfect gait, as if PRS just as much taught them how to walk.

PRS could not think ‘budget’ or even ‘mid-market’. That in itself would have been a contradiction in terms for him, it was beyond him. At a press conference to announce the opening of The Trident Gurgaon, some time back, he was keen to show me around the hotel; I refused his offer, saying he was embarrassing me. He insisted a senior colleague will show me around. Half an hour later, I got the impression he was kind of waiting for my return. What did I have to say, he seemed too keen to be asking? “No, Mr Oberoi” I started. His face kind of fell, he looked sad. He knew what was coming. “You have done it again,” I said. He was even more reflective. We did not say any more beyond that. We both knew what we were talking. He had built another luxury resort, which is what he knew best. Nothing ‘Trident’ about it, if it was meant to be his 4-star offering. Till this day, The Trident Gurgaon is a much-preferred destination resort, with an ambience unrivalled and most unique as an experience. I might prefer it to its sister property, The Oberoi Gurgaon, for its non-hotel oasis experience in the heart of the city. But then, this was PRS, never imagining something ‘less than the best’.

P.R.S. Oberoi, Executive Chairman, honoured with Lifetime Achievement Award – Forbes India Leadership Award.

His humility, concern could be awe-inspiring. On another occasion, I was with him at the Oberoi farm, his office and also his residence. Would I have another coffee, he asked? I replied, only if he had the time, I would love it. To which he said, he had all the time, when “I have people over to the farm, I keep enough time to spend with them, considering the distance they have travelled all the way from the city”! So, very thoughtful. He was the most charming of hosts, exceptionally candid in everything he spoke or did.

Not that he was only all charm. He could be unrelenting in his pursuit of what he thought needed to be done. It was only ‘his’ way. A dressing down from him could leave a lasting impression for an hour, a day, a career, but that was also truly him. This is also part of his folklore, his persona, his legend, none the less for it. It brought that side of him, his aura, his conviction of what he considered ‘the’ way. Ironically, this aspect rounded his character, in the way great playwrights would have created their protagonists on stage.

His legacy embraces all. More importantly, today, the Oberoi name rubs shoulders with the best globally, a proud ‘Made in India’ legacy in hospitality known around the world! His passing on is also a proud moment for India and all Indians at home and abroad to recognise and cherish what PRS has left as his contribution to Indian and global hospitality! Consider that the Oberoi alumni straddle across the world, each a proud Oberoi product, so much so, the XO Club (ex-Oberoi) has become an institution in itself! It should grow now, more than ever, in ensuring the PRS legacy lives on around the globe.

He would often lament that India’s potential for inbound tourists remained untapped. He often said his understanding of leisure tourism, as a component of total arrivals, was not adequate or commensurate to our potential. As industry initiatives, he was instrumental in the launching of the Hotel Association of India (HAI), preferring a smaller dedicated grouping of starred hotels to deliberate more focussed on Indian hospitality and tourism. He was also instrumental in bringing WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council), a worldwide assembly of the biggest players in travel and tourism globally, and starting their India chapter. But soon, his interest would wear off, considering that our industry bodies are prone to varying shades of opinion and often not driving adequate direction, his interest falling off, so to say.

We can best honour him by emulating his unflinching dedication to delivering excellence in hospitality! Efficiency combined with quality in creating world class products – this indeed is his message that Indian tourism needs to imbibe and grow with, in the years ahead! Long live PRS in the quality and dedication of the Indian tourism experience!

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