With over 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Deepak Ohri, CEO of lebua Hotels & Resorts, has seen it all. He has built a wealth of knowledge in guest experience, financial growth models and – most of all – strong leadership. Here, he talks to The CEO Magazine about his career and the inspiration behind his extraordinary entrepreneurial flair.
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Since recognising his entrepreneurial streak at the age of 17, Deepak Ohri, Founder and CEO of Thailand-based lebua Hotels & Resorts, has dedicated his career to creating exceptional hospitality experiences for the ultra-wealthy.
Deepak Ohri had an idea. He wanted to create a vertical destination – a high-rise collection of hotspots under one roof – for ultra-wealthy patrons. His vision would be located right in the centre of Bangkok. “Creating a destination for the 1% was my dream,” the lebua Hotels & Resorts Founder and CEO confirms.
Growing up in a middle-class family in India, Deepak was born a dreamer. He recognised early on what he wanted from life – adventure, education and, most of all, independence. At 17 years of age, he left for college, but he also began to identify as an entrepreneur.
“On a whim in 1981, I applied to the Institute of Hotel Management in Chennai and, to my surprise, was accepted,” Deepak reflects. “I didn’t have experience in the field. However, I accepted immediately and vowed to dedicate time to becoming an expert in the industry.” From that point on, Deepak knew his life would change.
“I was a vegetarian who had never seen an egg and had never tasted alcohol,” Deepak says, reflecting on his early days in the industry when he was lebua’s first employee in 2003. “I was mocked for my inability to drink beer and eat a boiled egg. This experience stayed with me. I learned that these challenges would prepare me to create something special.”
Deepak used his past to create a destination of the future. “Financial sustainability in every business is crucial and profit is key,” he says. “You can’t have people working for you when you’re running a business at a loss. Equally, empty restaurants don’t appeal to customers.
“Reaching the right audience by creating and designing a well-balanced culture of service allows ultra-high-net-worth individuals to experience stellar service. The super-wealthy aren’t just looking for good food – they want an experience as well,” Deepak explains.
After creating Bangkok’s leading culinary destination with the opening of The Dome at lebua, Deepak officially launched lebua Hotels and Resorts in 2006 as a global, luxury hotel brand. He was enticed by the available possibilities to build upon the guest experience and to further position the property as a one-stop vertical destination.
“Over the past 16 years, I have been credited with a variety of achievements stemming from my role at lebua. These include kicking off the rooftop dining craze in Bangkok with the creation and vision of The Dome at lebua. It was the only hotel in Thailand with multiple Michelin-star-ranked restaurants,” Deepak says proudly.
“My most rewarding achievement is developing and managing the service processes at each of lebua’s hotels, restaurants and bars,” he reflects. “Fostering a culture of service, identifying efficient practices and developing revenue strategies while introducing new hotspots to the public was a personal challenge of mine that I was able to overcome.”
Deepak adds, “I’m proud of my team for designing a formulaic approach and ultimately leading to over thirteen restaurant, hotel and bar openings.”
Inspired by the bright lights and glamour of Bollywood and Hollywood, Deepak strives to ensure his guests feel a sense of stardom at lebua.
“Just like Hollywood stars, once guests arrive at the property they are treated like A-listers,” he gushes. “To add to the lavish experience, we continue to identify and draw inspiration from the movie industry, introducing amenities like our Kār t̄h̀āy p̣hāph insiders (photography experts) who capture the guests strutting down the runway at Breeze.”
Over time and with changing clientele needs, the hotel brand has matured. “We wouldn’t dare do the things we did when we first started; we’ve since gained more experience within the industry,” Deepak explains. He adds that this continuous need for change is also the biggest challenge. “To continue to be of interest, lebua has recently opened Thailand’s first interactive French restaurant, Chef’s Table, helmed by award-winning Chef Vincent Theirry.”
Introducing hyper-local sourced ingredients exclusive to chefs at The Dome has been another ploy to stay relevant. These ingredients include Mezzaluna chef Ryuki Kawasaki’s Wagyu beef A5 from his hometown in Niigata, Japan. “The area only allows distribution of 100 cows annually. Chef Ryuki receives one cow per month to craft his signature two-Michelin star menu offerings,” Deepak explains. “By identifying the strengths and individualism of our staff, we can overcome all challenges as a team.”
Food holds a dear spot for Deepak. Growing up in a traditional Indian family, he was introduced to spices and flavours by his mother at a very young age.
“While my palate continues to evolve and I continue to experiment with new flavours to enhance the culinary offerings at The Dome at lebua, my favourite cuisine will always be my mother’s vegetarian Indian food,” he says.
“My mother’s cuisine is what keeps me grounded. It’s easy to forget your roots in the hospitality and culinary field. While I am thankful for excellent Michelin-starred meals, I still make time every Tuesday and Friday to visit my mother for her homecooked delicacies.”
Hospitality is a specialised industry. But it also provides endless opportunities for those within to learn on the job and grow within a brand.
“We’ve had many individuals work their way up the ladder from front desk agents to leadership positions,” Deepak says. “There are no barriers within the world of hospitality, which is something I learned firsthand. Through hard work, we get to see the world and meet exceptional people. If I had to find one synonym for globalisation, I would say it’s hospitality.”
Throughout his career, Deepak has also learned what it means to be a successful leader. “Be direct, be a fool – meaning, be open to learning, and be hungry. Do the extra 1% and always keep ‘what’s next?’ in your mind,” he advises.
Yet, one of Deepak’s most memorable lessons was passed on by his father. “He taught me to always remember where I came from. However big you grow, your roots must stay strong.”