Bill Bensley is the go-to designer for one-of-a-kind luxury hotels. The Bangkok-based architect has masterminded over 200 properties in 30-plus countries, including the world’s first edible golf course at Belle Mont Farm, St. Kitts, the art-deco inspired boutique The Siam and The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle buried in the depths of the Thai jungle. Digital Editor Millie Walton speaks to Bensley about escapism, sustainability and fly fishing for trout on the Mongolian border.
LUX: All of your hotels are remarkably unique. What’s your process when creating a concept?
Bill Bensley: Well thank you. Very kind of you to say so. While I don’t have a set process for generating good ideas I do listen very carefully to what an environmentally sensitive piece of wilderness tells me. An ear to the ground, or an understanding of how a natural environment works is key. When building in a new region, I also listen to and understand with great interest the idiosyncrasies of the culture presented. I never force my style anywhere.
LUX: Do you have a favourite hotel that you’ve designed?
Bill Bensley: Hands down it is the Shinta Mani Angkor in Siem Reap as we have used the hotel as a vehicle to help thousands of less fortunate Cambodians from housing to free dentistry, to water wells and water purification, to schooling of hospitality, starting small businesses and distributing little known agricultural crops for villagers to grow and reproduce…. and besides that it is a damn good value for money with wonderful staff that cannot do enough to make your stay comfortable and memorable. Last year it hit #1 in the world on Trip Advisor!
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LUX: We recently stayed at your newest hotel, JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. It was like being in another world. Is escapism something you try to achieve with your designs?
Bill Bensley: Escapism, in the purely positive sense, is a great goal. I also think that in the building of a new hotel it is important to teach guests something new. Something they never knew. Something to take home other than sunburn.
LUX: The JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay has been a huge Instagram success (especially the shell pool!). Did you consider the influence of social media when designing the hotel?
Bill Bensley: My brain does not work that well yet! But I do think that if a multi-storied guest tower is part of the picture, as with Lamarck University, then I strive to make that landscape graphic visually.
LUX: What excites you the most about your work?
Bill Bensley: The fact that folks pay me to play. I have never worked a day in my life. I am excited about the publics response to my out of the box, crazy / sane approach to designing new hotel properties.
LUX: How do you think the luxury hospitality industry has evolved in recent years?
Bill Bensley: It is more and more sophisticated, and specialised. Soon we will be designing hotels that appeal to specifically to the jovial lesbians, 23-29 years of age, with rescued three legged dogs that love indoor snow boarding. Hot trend!
LUX: You’ve designed hotels in many interesting and remote locations around the world. How do you celebrate local culture whilst creating something new and unique?
Bill Bensley: To do so one requires a deep understanding of that culture. I am an avid reader. I love to visit places of worship which is usually the paramount of culture in most societies.
LUX: Is sustainability important to you?
Bill Bensley: Sustainability is paramount. I hate green-washers. Before my life as a resort architect and an interior designer I was trained as a landscape architect. About 6 years ago I purchased the logging rights to 1400 acres of Cambodian forest, with no intention of becoming a lumberjack. By way of Shinta Mani Wild Bensley Collection, a 15 tent very high end, low impact high yield product, we have created a wilderness sanctuary that will remain wild for at least the length of my 99 year lease. At 1800 USD per night per couple my wilderness experience promises more adventure than most can handle, unlimited spa services, foraging, and a deep understanding of the wilderness that is Cambodia.Our National Geographic Lodge experience is about regenerating a small part of our disappearing fragile natural environment.
LUX: What are you working on now?
Bill Bensley: Bags of projects. The new Shinta Mani Bensley Collection hotels in Siem Reap and the Cardamom National Park in Cambodia are keeping me hopping right now, but that aside we are soon to open the Rosewood in Luang Prabang, the Capella in Keliki near Ubud, Bali, the Ritz Carlton in both Hainan, China and Phu Quoc, Vietnam, and a fabulous MGallery hotel in Sapa, North Vietnam and a St Regis on the gorgeous Cham Island just off of Hoi An in Vietnam, another Four Seasons (I have designed 12) in the Chinese Himalayas, and a Banyan Tree in Goa, India, a zillion GBP residence in Mayfair, new Oberoi hotels in the Maldives, Kathmandu and Bhardia (West Nepal), an Indigo in Jakarta, shall I go on? I can….for days.
LUX: Where do you go to escape?
Bill Bensley: I just returned today to my home of 30 years: Bangkok. My Thai partner and travel a great deal. We have visited 92 countries and counting. Just visited Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovenia, Morocco. Warsaw, surprisingly was the highlight of the trip. Every year we escape for 2-3 weeks to the Mongolian Russian border to fly fish for trout and taimen. This past summer was great…. 48 in one day. Biggest trout? 44”.