The second in our series of Meet the Maker – where we talk to the most creative thinkers in the hotel business.
This week we’re in conversation with Bangkok-based architect and hotel designer Bill Bensley, the brainchild of out-there wilderness Shanti Mani Wild, Capella Ubud, The Siam and Four Seasons Golden Triangle among countless others. He talks us through his whimsical story-led projects with The Bensley Collection and why he believes sustainability has to be at the core of everything we do.
You trained as an architect at Harvard, were you interested in hotel design then, or did that come later?
When I was at Harvard, I could not even afford to stay at Motel 6. But just after graduation, I landed a job in Singapore and a week later I was on a plane to Bali to design a pool and the gardens for the Bali Hyatt. I was smitten.
Imagine you met someone who has never stayed in one of your hotels – which hotel would you recommend to get a true flavour of the Bensley style?
Shinta Mani Wild presses all the BENSLEY buttons. Conservation, wildlife protection, social responsibility, education of both guests and villagers, employment, and romantic story-telling!
Describe The Bensley Collection in three words.
Genuine. Purposeful. Romantic.
How important do you think sustainability is?
It is paramount to our existence on our planet. I was born in California to English immigrants and my family had a small farm where we were pretty much self-sustaining. I raised bees, quails, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mushrooms, a huge variety of veggies and of course a compost heap. We would travel with our little family trailer almost every weekend to a camp spot, so I grew up with a great love for the wilderness and certainly learnt how to sustain our family with food. It makes me smile to hear the word sustainability used so frequently these days as though it is a new idea.
Do you think sustainability is just a trend, or here to stay?
I think the use of the word is trendy and we will move on to better and bigger words, but I think the general publics’ understanding of the importance of the stewardship of our planet is here to stay and will increase exponentially.
Everyone is talking about Shinta Mani Wild – it’s as crazy as it is luxury, but also has deep roots in conservation. What came first – a desire to protect the Cardamom National Park or the need to create something utterly unique?
A desire to protect the Cardamom National Park. These days I only take on projects that have purpose and real meaning. It can be as simple as the education of a guest as to a certain part of local history to as complex as educating a village of children. I am driven to use hospitality for purposeful objectives like conservation, wildlife protection, cleaner water and higher education. I have done lots of unique hotels. Now I want to do unique hotels with a purpose.
What kind of person would enjoy Shinta Mani Wild?
Gosh, good question! My 75-year-old big sister just loved it and made five rounds of the zip line course in a day [guests can choose to enter the hotel via a zipline through the forest]. She holds the record for the oldest zipper. We get the super athletic types doing triple somersaults off the five -storey Raging Big Sister Waterfall followed by five hours of mountain biking and kayaking to those that just like to read a book in the bath on their porch overlooking the rapids. I do think it is going to appeal to those that care about where our planet is headed as Shinta Mani Wild is a rather new hospitality and conservation concept, and the sole reason for its existence is to create a sustainable way to patrol and defend the Cardamom Forest. Shinta Mani Wild works closely with the Wildlife Alliance; the guardians and heroes of the forest. This non-profit organization catches and most importantly prosecutes poachers and illegal loggers, and adventurous guests can experience this first-hand with a motorcycle safari into the heart of the forest.
You cite travel as an inspiration. Where have you not travelled to, that you long to visit?
One would think that a person who has travelled to 94 countries would be running out of places to go. NO WAY BABY! The more I travel the more I want to explore new places like Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Zambia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tunisia, Malta, Romania, Jordan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Oman, Yemen, Venezuela, South Sandwich, Vanuatu, Nicobar, Reunion, Belize, Costa Rica….the list goes on. Most of these countries I have had plans to visit but I went somewhere else instead. Some of these countries the visas are already in my passport waiting for the day they will be used.
You quote that ‘nature is the ultimate designer’ – how does nature feature in your hotels?
As a landscape architect, before I graduated to hotel design, I learnt the principles of the stewardship of the earth, and those principles apply to every single one of our projects. When I am working with a natural environment, I know I can only make things worse, because Mother Nature is the ultimate designer. No matter how beautiful my hotel is, it can never compete with nature, so the key is damage control. I think I have learnt how to do this very well over the past 35 years.
Your hotels are becoming more and more outlandish and wonderfully unique– what’s next for Bensley – and where?
Hot off the press is a commission for a three-pronged experience stay in a national park in Quannan, China encompassing stilted villas, butler-staffed houseboats and Ming Dynasty houses. The next few years will be busy for us in Thailand with a new Six Senses hill station in railway carriages, a Four Seasons ‘Plantation’ in Koh Samui with farmhouses set in a working farm and L’escape, Koh Samui – a spectacular 40 room ocean front King Rama IV cum Dorothy Draper extravaganza. Other projects on the horizon include themes on a Buddhist complex, a Vietnamese opera house and ancient civilizations. These ideas may seem unconventional – but wait and see how they translate to wow-factor hotels which have the utmost care for their environment. You won’t be disappointed!