INTERVIEW: BILL BENSLEY, FOUNDER BENSLEY
Designer, hotelier, environmentalist, visionary… there are many words to describe Bill Bensley’s career, but we wanted to find out more about Bill Bensley the person, so managed to track him down to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to Editor Sophie Harper about, well, just about everything!
Bill Bensley, born in California to English parents, grew up on a small farm where from a young age he learnt to raise bees, quails, chickens, ducks, rabbits, cultivate growing space for a variety of veggies and take charge of the compost heap! Holidays were spent travelling to camp sites across the ’States with the family, enjoying the outdoors and appreciating the wilderness. It’s no surprise then that Bill is such an advocate for all things nature and environment-friendly – something he is so well-known for – as well as his remarkable design fusions of course.
Recalling the specific moment that set him on the path to design, Bill tells me: “In High School we had a careers day to help kids like me figure out what the heck we were going to do with our lives. A talk by landscape architect Rocco Campanozzi triggered the lightbulb moment for me.” Bill remembers Rocco’s slideshow of his work at Knotts Berry Farm, a theme park that Bill describes as a “western Disneyland” close to his school. “The idea of actually getting to design a place that brings on a daily basis so much fun and joy to thousands of people was the moment I knew I had to be a landscape architect. I was smitten, hook line and sinker,” says Bill, who’s still in touch with Rocco Campanozzi to this day.
Bill studied at Cal Poly Pomona and Harvard before making the leap across the Pacific and moving to Asia in the early ’80s. “Hospitality development was in its infancy,” he says. “Doors were opened easily and the opportunities to build were many… still are. I have found that Asia, especially Thailand and Indonesia, has given and given and given.” Bill learnt to speak both Thai and Indonesian at an early age, which he says helped him get his ideas across. Now he has Bensley design studios in both countries with around 80 people in his Bangkok HQ and 60 in Bali. “At Bensley we do everything from architecture to interior design, landscape architecture to graphic design – so the whole shebang! Every day I make decisions ranging from uniform design to the curve of a roof. The biggest ideations of a project to the smallest details.”
Living by the ethos ‘if it’s not fun then don’t do it’, Bill encourages his friends and staff to take the same attitude. “I employ interior designers, architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, draftsmen, gardeners, maids, artists, draftsmen… I encourage them to try other options if they don’t like what they are doing. Over the years we’ve had a gardener turn into a fine draftsman by learning CAD at night, a Balinese maid turn to accounting, our best interior designer was previously a landscape architect and one of our talented artist team used to be an architect. So having a job that is too much damn fun, every single day, why should I not be infectiously whacky? Instinctively I am the very curious sort that wants to stay hungry and young.”
As well as wanting work and life choices to be a fun experience, Bill is a philanthropist and lives by a ‘giving back’ philosophy. I ask him if we should all be investing in local communities and conservation more and whether or not he feels hoteliers and designers should be more accountable for the impact their projects have on the environment. “Yes and yes,” he responds. “We are not just hoteliers and designers. We share this planet with those local communities – it is them we impact when we build stupidly, or well, and it is our Earth as much as theirs that we risk damaging. In my opinion we have a responsibility to be held accountable. We have the power to help them with projects that preserve their environment.” Bill tells me more about Shinta Mani Wild, Bill’s own hotel in Cambodia. “We have created a hotel that funds a sustainable way to support the policing of the forest via Wildlife Alliance, while offering unique experiences to guests. We are protecting and rewilding there, with species formerly long gone slowly returning!” Beyond conservation, the hotel’s presence is helping the local community: “Wild employs 120 people,” Bill says. “70% of whom are from the local village – and some of those were poaching and illegally cutting trees. The existence of this project gave them a new life. And in turn, the sustainable nature of this project is all the more appealing in that it is a model that will continue long after I am gone.”
It’s a topic Bill is passionate about. So much so in fact that he saw an opportunity to use his position in the industry to speak out and encourage other hoteliers to do more for the environments their businesses occupied. “Too few in the travel industry put any effort into understanding the fragility of our planet. That is why I wrote my white paper: Sensible Sustainable Solutions.” The white paper was released earlier this year and highlights areas for improvement in the industry using examples from Bill’s own business models. “It is the essence of what I have learnt building some 200 hotels over the past 37 years. I want to share my knowledge in the hope that someone somewhere in the hospitality business will learn something new and build something more sustainable. There are some 15k hotels planning construction in the next five years. I want to influence positively the design of those new builds!” I ask him whether designers should be looking at more sustainable materials as well as hoteliers tackling better operational measures. “Yes!” He says without hesitation. “Yes to sustainable materials, more thoughtful building methods and absolutely yes to more sustainable measures on the operations side. Up to now the vast majority of what we see is greenwashing and that is simply not acceptable – if it were up to me it would be punishable by jail time.”
As both a designer and a hotelier, Bill is in a rare and fortunate position. I ask him if he believes he has a greater understanding of what makes a successful hotel project with these two perspectives. “I would say so as I think I understand certain intricacies of hotel operation and the way guests work in ways not all designers might. Like with anything experience helps one grow and understand different perspectives. It is very helpful to have been on both sides of the table as I can truly put myself in the other’s shoes.”
Having worked on many impressive projects and with numerous luxury brands, Bill’s work is often theatrical in style, exuberance and texture adorning some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, like a stage being set. “Spinning a tale is a great joy in my life,” he says by way of explanation. “I love storytelling via hospitality as one, in a way, has a captured audience. Some listen some don’t. That is the beauty of it all. When I travel I especially love to learn; so I try to teach guests something new and interesting in each and every one of my new creations. Building a hotel is a bit like making a movie.” He tells me about some of his favourite projects to date. “I am very proud of our two latest hotels in Vietnam: JW Marriott Phu Quoc aka Lamarck University and Mgallery Hotel de la Coupole in Sapa. One was inspired by the best days of our lives – university days – and the other by the marriage of hill tribe fashion and French Haute Couture in the mountains of Vietnam. Irresistible!” he exclaims. “My all-time favourite would have to be Shinta Mani Wild as it allies storytelling, adventure, great design, and conservation – it is all I would want in a hotel when going on holiday, and so it has all of my favourite things.”
It seems Shinta Mani Wild was certainly a labour of love for Bill, a place that taps into childhood imagination. Set within Cambodian forest, it’s almost engulfed by the trees surrounding it adding to the impact of its location and showing how we can build new structures without disturbing natural habitats. The zipline into the reception area is a stroke of genius. Unexpected delights like this are how Bill defines luxury. “To me luxury as we knew it for so long is dead. It is no longer Frette sheets and tons of flowers in the lobby. High-end travellers are looking for experiences that are unique to a place. Luxury is experiencing something for the very first time. Luxury is comfortably enjoying a jungle environment all by yourself. Luxury is waking up to the roar of birds of the jungle. Luxury is being loved by dogs. And most of all, luxury is the ability to help others.”
The worldwide pandemic has left us all facing a few challenges, so I ask Bill for his opinion on the lie of the land for hospitality and travel. “Really there is no such thing as a challenge, just the way of looking at things. Sometimes all you need is a change in perspective. Six weeks ago I thought working from home would be a disaster, instead we are thriving and I am finding out where the true gems lie in my design team.” He adds, “I think following COVID 19 we will clear away the junk when we approach travel – completely rethink it in terms of where we go, and why we go there. I am sure that I will travel less post crisis, and I am sure that I am not the only one; I hope people will see the impact that less travel has on the natural environment and be more selective about where they go – it is a plus. The more ‘monied’ people have for a long time already been seeking places that are more remote and lost in deep nature. I think this will become more sought after and perhaps more accessible – hopefully not at a detriment to those places. I think social distancing will remain with us for years.”
It’s evident the pandemic hasn’t effected Bill’s work though as the studio and his team continue to work on more exciting projects. Bill tells me they’re currently working on the new Sukhothai in Bangkok on the riverside, where villas have their own private pool right in the heart of the city, as well as a surfing resort on the coast in China, a beautiful Capella hotel in Hanoi that celebrates life around the Opera House (actors, opera singers and set designers) at the turn of the century. Then there’s World Wild – an ambitious project that if successful will be the first of its kind. “World Wild is a special one set in China. It is going to be a set of seven hotels and a great deal of land where the animals are free and the people are in cages.. how about that!” Bill says gleefully. It’s worth pointing out that the ‘cages’ Bill speaks of will actually be very nice hotels! “We were approached by a good client of ours to design a zoo with some 2,000 plus hotel rooms on a chunk of land bigger than Central Park – naturally, I was intrigued. However, I am not a fan of zoos and asked for some time to come up with something better. After visiting as many zoos and animal parks as I could in China, I went back to my client with the idea to dedicate 95% of his land for animals to run free, and 5% of the land for people to observe animals – but stay confined to that 5%, in ‘viewing cages’ for people: in other words, hotels, which in this case will involve Conrad and Hilton. My dream is that the mistreated animals of over-populated zoos in China could run free here.” The plans for the site are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, but if anyone can pull something like this off, I’m certain it has to be Bill.
Celebrating BENSLEY’s 30th anniversary this year Bill tells me he hopes the team will be able to celebrate when they can all be together again but that ultimately he wants to continue the studio’s good work. “My ambition for BENSLEY is that we keep challenging ourselves. There are many nice things that folks say about our resorts. My fear is if I start believing them I may become complacent and satisfied. I genuinely want to stay hungry and work hard to destroy the boundaries of today’s field of hospitality. I do believe that our best work is yet to come.”