Oberoi Hotels and Resorts
Appointed in 2009 as President of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, veteran hotelier Liam Lambert joined the Delhi-based group in the midst of multiple crises—the economic meltdown, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that included targeting an Oberoi flagship property and the H1N1 virus scare. After having helped lead Mandarin Oriental through a period of global expansion at the high luxury level, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief talked with Lambert during the ITB travel fair in Berlin to see what he has in store for Oberoi, tips for doing business in his new home base and more.
ET: Tell us a bit about your background.
Liam Lambert: I’m from Dublin, from a large family, and I went to hotel school there. I am a bit of a Francophile and worked two years in Paris, then Sydney. I was with Westin in Canada for 11 years, where we had 3 children, and I was then transferred to the Philippines for three years. From there I joined Mandarin Oriental and ran the Excelsior, the biggest hotel in Hong Kong at the time, and then five years at the flagship Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. I then opened the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London for five years then became head for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Mandarin. About a year ago I was approached by Oberoi and joined last May.
ET: Can you give us an overview of Oberoi?
Liam Lambert: Oberoi in my mind is positioned today in the world as an India-centric luxury brand that’s not that well known around the world. It is my mandate to bring the brand forward and create a global brand. That won’t happen in one year, it may take 10 years, but along the way we have that in mind. At present, we have 19 operations across India, Egypt, Mauritius, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, including two cruise ships on the Nile. We continue to receive accolades for “Best Hotel in the world”, “Best Hotel in Asia” and our hotels are quite iconic in many instances. For example, you open your curtains in Agra and the Taj Mahal is 500 yards away. We’re the only hotel in Cairo where you can open your curtains and there are pyramids 500 yards away.
At present, our expansion is focused on increasing our footprint in southwest Asia. We are opening next year in Dubai, in Abu Dhabi we have two hotels opening, we have an opening in Oman, we are opening in Marrakech. In the future we have to look around the world to see what will unfold.
ET: It sounds a bit like Mandarin?
Liam Lambert: (Laughs) I don’t like to compare our hotels to others. I remember when Four Seasons had two hotels and Ritz-Carlton didn’t exist. I remember when Westin had only 70 hotels and they were all in America. In the hotel business we are always going through evolution, birth and rebirth. Now is the time to reinvent Oberoi as a global brand.
ET: What separates Oberoi from other luxury groups?
Liam Lambert: Wherever we grow you will always know architecturally you are in that part of the world, but there will always be a touch of India— the distinctive Oberoi service, a scent of jasmine, our spas, after all Ayurveda started in India some 5,000 years ago, so we lay some claim to its continuation.
ET: Any tips for readers who want to start a business in India?
Liam Lambert: India is a huge country with 1.2 billion people, including a 500 million-person middle class that is developing and growing. Over the past several years there have been huge infrastructure projects—highways, airports, train stations. Still you have to know it’s a bureaucratic country. It takes time and patience. In every city we are in, one person is employed who does nothing but liaise with the government and deal with regulations. If you have a question in business, expect a long verbose response. You have to really cut to the quik. There are huge amounts of information with the people who you will work with and work for you. It is easy to find experts in virtually every field from accounting to IT to banking. In India, as in all countries, face is very important so you can never allow somebody to lose self-esteem. But like anywhere, people appreciate public praise. One of the great things in India is that most people speak English. Indians are deeply loyal to you once you are loyal to them. You need to employ auditors and financial controllers. In India you can live a comfortable life and be treated well, but if you don’t want that you can drive your own car and live in a beautiful apartment.
ET: Any hobbies or passions you partake in?
Liam Lambert: I like to paint with acrylics and oil paints on a Saturday afternoon. I play chess with the friends. I always have three books on the go: history, a funny book and a novel, or a book on where I am. I like to immerse myself in the local culture.
ET: Excluding Oberoi, any favorite properties?
Liam Lambert: The Park Hotel in Kenmare sits on the side of a hill and has beautiful gardens that run down to the water. They have a fantastic Celtic Spa. It is very meditational. I like the Arizona Biltmore with its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. The Fairmont Banff Springs, nestled in the woods, has beautiful architecture on the outside, dark woods and fireplaces inside. It’s beautiful in winter. Hong Kong has The Peninsula Hotel with its architecture and service. And of course there’s The Oriental in Bangkok, which has mediocre architecture but amazing service.
ET: Are there any important events happening this year for Oberoi?
Liam Lambert: Tragically, on November 26, 2008, our hotel in Mumbai, along with 10 other locations, was attacked by terrorists. Our hotel is an atrium styled hotel and it was badly damaged. Our hotel has Mr. Oberoi’s name on it so it was very important for us to make sure we restored it so it was better than ever and it will be the finest hotel in Mumbai. It will reopen in April. We will have three main restaurants, one named Fenix. Ziya, the Indian restaurant in consultation with Vineet Bhatia, who has 2 Michelin stars, in London and Geneva, but trained with Oberoi. So it’s a big deal, like the prodigal son coming home. Lastly there’s Vetro, the Italian restaurant. We reduced the room inventory from 327 to 287 and we created 39 new Oberoi Rooms that are like suites in size but in a large room open style. There will also be two Presidential Suites, up from one, and 20 amazing corner suites. A few months after that we open a hotel in Gurgaon which is the new business district in Delhi, sort of like Canary Wharf in London, with all new construction, Japanese and Indian restaurants. Some of the suites have their own lap pool. It is really quite amazing.
Premier Lake View Rooms with SemiPrivate Pools – The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra
The Lobby – The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur