The Northeast is the ‘Jewel Basket of India’ waiting to be explored

Abhilasha Ojha 08 Jan 2014, considered one of the best online sites for reviews of the hospitality industry, mentions someone talking about the Elgin Hotel in Darjeeling: “…This account would not be complete without young Viraj Oberoi, who I can confidently say has taken over the reins of this lovely retreat in the hills with all the skill and aplomb of his father…. My compliments… to the Elgin for a wonderful stay.”

While it is easy to describe Viraj Oberoi as someone born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth – he is the son of hotelier B.R. Oberoi, and the grandson of K.C. Oberoi – 32-year-old Viraj is quietly but enthusiastically using his own expertise to grow the reputation and the brand name of Elgin Hotels and Resorts. To be sure, Elgin Hotels is looking closely at expanding its footprint in Northeast India. It currently has five heritage properties, including Elgin in Darjeeling, Elgin Silver Oaks in Kalimpong, Elgin Norkhill in Gangtok, Elgin Mount Pandim in Pelling and Elgin Heritage in Mauritius

Though he has learned a lot from his grandfather and father, Viraj says, “It is easy to inherit but what is actually challenging is keeping up and furthering the legacy one inherits.”

In a conversation with Abhilasha Ojha, Viraj talks about his big dream: the expansion of Elgin Hotels & Resorts.

Did you always want to get into the hospitality business that was so carefully – and successfully -- created by your grandfather?

One of my first memories is missing the luxuries of our hotel while I was studying at St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling. Our hotel was located very close to the school and I missed being there.  But I was assured of the magnificent, panoramic view of the snow-capped Himalayas from my classroom in school. I went to Mumbai for my college (St Xavier’s) and later specialised in hospitality management at the prestigious Ecole Les Roches School of Hotel Management in Switzerland. Given that I chose to specialise in hotel management, wanting to understand everything related to the hospitality industry, I was clear that I would return to look after Elgin Hotels & Resorts.

I love keeping a good home and to me a hotel is an extension; a bigger ‘home’. I have always loved welcoming people home, caring and entertaining them from the time I can remember, so being a hotelier came naturally to me. I believe a good hotelier’s inspiration always begins from keeping a good home. After all, a good hotel is an extension of a good home.

You have inherited a legacy of sorts. Does it make it easier for you or is it challenging?

Originally, the New Elgin Hotel in Darjeeling was built in 1887. It was named after the village of Elgin in Scotland by the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. It was then leased by him to a succession of British families, the last one being Madame Nancy Oakley. My grandfather K.C. Oberoi bought the hotel in the 1960s. It was my father [popularly known as Diamond], however, who expanded and added three more hotels by the same name. Thus, Elgin Hotels & Resorts, as a brand continued growing under his able leadership and guidance. So, my grandfather started making his dream a reality but my father grew it and built on the foundation laid by my grandfather. I believe that all great empires are made from dust but if not looked after empires can turn to dust too. For me, the challenge is to preserve and grow the legacy, the brand with further devotion, attention and care. It helps to observe dad and learn from him along the way.

What would you say has been your biggest learning seeing your father’s professional success?

Dad is a people’s man. He is very social and loves to interact with people at a one-on-one basis always. He has a great sense of humour and this helps a great deal to lighten up tense work situations.

Elgin Hotels is a formidable name in the heritage boutique hotels category, especially in Northeast India. How have you worked on its distinctive style? What, according to you, sets it apart from other hotels?

A very integral part of the design of our hotels is the old Indian colonial charm. However, our hotels also encapsulate the local culture, the history of the entire region of Darjeeling and Sikkim. The idea is to blend colonial British architectural design with the local culture of the region. We have taken care to refurbish each of our properties slowly while preserving the history and priceless memorabilia in each of them. We were clear not to do anything in a quick sweeping manner to renovate. It took us five years to restore many of the paintings, carpets, furniture and precious artefacts. After we undertook a detailed study of the art de objects at the Elgin properties, we engaged curators and restoration experts for consultation and expertise before doing the entire restoration of the properties.

What makes Northeast India so special for Elgin?

This part of India is brimming with life. It is the ‘Jewel Basket of India’ waiting to be explored. There is a lot to look forward to: the culture and eco diversity, the natural wilderness, the music of this area, the local cuisine that is waiting to be sampled… Most of all, people should visit the Northeast because the local folks here are so full of warmth and grace, always willing to host visitors. 

What difference would you like to bring to the overall hospitality sector in India through Elgin Hotels? What’s the mantra of Elgin Hotels?

Elgin, we firmly believe, is a home away from home. So, bringing back the warmth in the Indian hospitality industry, which I feel is getting lost in the bid to become overtly Westernised in service standards, is what I am striving for.

Which is your favourite spot/room/space in any of the Elgin properties?

I have two favourite spots in Elgin, Darjeeling. One is the hotel lounge where I have my afternoon tea and socialise with our hotel guests. I also love the hotel’s sprawling garden area that helps me unwind in the midst of nature.

What’s the typical day in the life of Viraj Oberoi? Given that you maintain a hectic schedule, how do you like to unwind? 

I am a man always on the move. Having a chain of hotels in different locations demands that I spend my time equally at all the hotels. Normally, I give myself an hour in the morning; I wake up and say a small prayer, meditate a little and then do some exercises. I get ready after which I take a complete round of each and every department of the hotel talking to the staff members. I need to be alert since I am always making notes in my head for any glitches or problems that need immediate attention. I always have all my major meals in the hotel’s dining room and in the evenings, I unwind with a nice walk in the hotel’s garden area.

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