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Meet one of travel’s most brilliant personalities

One of travel’s most brilliant, eccentric and innovative designers was given the Contribution to Luxury Travel award at this year’s TTG Luxury Travel Awards – we look at the life and work of Bill Bensley

Bill Bensley, founder of Bensley
Bill Bensley, founder of Bensley

Where did you get started?

As a professional, I cut my teeth in Asia, finding this place exuberantly life-confirming, and I have loved this job from the start, from early days in Singapore and Hong Kong, to setting up shop in Bangkok.


I started out building exotic gardens, mostly in Bali, but honestly, I did not like many of the hotel buildings I was engaged to tart up with my tamed jungles! As time went on, I learnt the spoken and architectural languages of south-east Asia, and became erudite of all things Bali.

A tent at Shinta Mani Wild in the Cambodian jungle
A tent at Shinta Mani Wild in the Cambodian jungle

What is your proudest project to date?

It has to be Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. It is, in many ways, my dream hotel, from the zip line check-in, to the immersion in one of the last great wildernesses of south-east Asia, and the conservation efforts at its heart.


Our handful of divine little tents in the forest exist to help fund the protection of the forest by the Wildlife Alliance, day in and out, and teach all our guests about conservation as well.


Best of all, it has created work for 120 people, 70% of which are from the local village. Many were poachers and loggers, as this region had little infrastructure and fewer opportunities to work: this is now a long-term employment opportunity without which they would be forced to turn to destroying the local flora and fauna.

How many people are part of Bensley? And what do you look for in a colleague?

There are about 80 of us in Bangkok and 60 in Bali – a great many more than I had ever dreamed. It’s a team of designers, architects, artists and thinkers who make the wild things I dream up become a reality.


I look for people who know how to do things I don’t, and are more skilled than me. I like to think that if I hire people who are experts in what they do, some of it rubs off – they teach me a great deal and vice versa. If I don’t have the answer, they always find a way.


“I look for people who know how to do things I don’t.”


What were your earliest travel memories?

Every weekend me and my family of five – English immigrants to California – would travel with our little family trailer to a camp spot close by. And every summer, we would hop into our own trailer and travel all over the US.


I loved exploring and still do, growing up with a great love for wilderness. As I got older my chums and I would backpack for 10 days and more in the high Sierras, living off the land.


These days – now I’m a big kid – I like to make a mess and get covered in paint on a Sunday, drawing with my husband, my dogs and some friends to draw in the garden. Sometimes I cut trips away short to come back for it – it’s just too much fun to miss!

Bill Bensley visits one of the villages helped by the Shinta Mani Foundation
Bill Bensley visits one of the villages helped by the Shinta Mani Foundation

What trip or place has had the most profound impact on you?

Cambodia is the place that touched me the most, and one trip in particular was the jolt which began my work in philanthropy.


The first time I saw real poverty was in a small village on the outskirts of Siem Reap in the 1990s. At the time, one could still hear regular gunshots from the Khmer Rouge.


Siem Reap was just a few dusty roads; to visit Angkor Wat, one needed an armed soldier to come along, as the monuments were still littered with mines – we were the only visitors there and it was breathtaking.


A friend brought me to meet a family of seven – dad was long gone, mom was struggling to keep her six children alive, living on gathered branches above wet soil.


The two-year-old had an extended stomach from malnutrition; in that instant that poverty kicked me in the gut and I promised myself to help these folks.


“It was a hand up, not a hand out.”


That is where, 25 years on, the Shinta Mani group comes in.


Our three Shinta Mani hotels in Siem Reap house a hospitality school, while through the Shinta Mani Foundation, we have started a farm for the distribution of better crops for Cambodian farmers, we build wells and distribute water filters to around a thousand people, administer free dental and medical care (over 9,000 check-ups so far), give micro-loans for small businesses… and all of that comes from just 5% of revenues and guest donations.


A little can go so very far. And as for the family who started it all? All of them went to school on new bikes, live in a new house with a veggie garden, pigs and a sewing machine… and surprise, surprise, dad came home.


It was a hand up, not a hand out, which is the philosophy of Shinta Mani founder, Sokoun Chanpreda, my dear friend.

What’s your ‘must have’ travel accessory?

I always travel with a huge sketchbook, brushes, a watercolour block, pastels, and about 30 different kinds of pens and pencils. I paint and sketch anything and everything, from fabrics to floors to the cabin crew!


We’re coming to dinner tonight – what’s on the menu?

Chez Bensley is our sweet home and wild garden in the heart of Bangkok, which we fondly call Baan Botanica, and Tom Yum Pla is on the menu!


What’s your favourite trait about yourself? And worst habit?

I would say it is my positive energy and humour. I am good humoured by nature but living in the “land of smiles” also helps encourage some good habits.


Bad habit? I have too many dogs that fart constantly! But goodness they make us laugh, both at home and the office.

dogs/sunrise/work trips

You seem to love Jack Russells – why?

Yes – I have six! Chuck, Bobby, Jesse, Frankie, Sammy and most recently, Tommy, a little two-month-old who holds his own against the older dogs.


I love Jacks because they think they are Rotweillers and they have personalities that are completely unique from each other.


When we run in the fields around Bangkok they hunt as a pack, for rats and snakes. This is thrilling for me to see the pre-genetically modified dog traits surfacing in spades!


As the leader of the pack, they are very protective and obedient. But most importantly they, as do I, show their affection generously every day without fail. And they NEVER ever have a bad hair day!


Sunset or sunrise? And the best one you’ve ever seen?

Sunset – Easter Island! We were at the end of four days of trekking around the island. Exhausted from a day of hiking and horseriding up and down valleys, we climbed up the final peak with our guide to be greeted by a feast.


The hotel had ever so kindly set up a bar and dinner with four beautiful fish for us to dig into on our last night.


As we made it to the top and discovered the feast, the most stunning sunset was coming down over the horizon. It was perfect.

"Hotels will become like ‘churches’ – more community-oriented, rather than just being heads-on-beds"

Do you feel the environmental panic is ever going to really slow down people travelling?

One would hope so, but the reality is that people live such global lives now, it is hard to envisage a world without international travel.


I believe the future in this respect is more geared towards offsetting one’s carbon footprint by donating to companies who are planting trees or preserving our natural resources.


Another obvious choice is that people are more and more choosing hotels which do good for the earth: this is the future of the hospitality industry.


If travellers want it, hotels must offer it - and most travellers can see through the regular greenwash now.


Hopefully it will spur hotels to actually make real changes in terms of sustainable practices. In the future, they will be built more with a purpose. I think hotels will become like ‘churches’ – more community-oriented, rather than just being heads-on-beds.


In the next five years, 15,000 new hotels worldwide are going to be built; those are pretty darned easy to get right. I have done a white paper called Sensible Sustainable Solutions - a 20-page, easy-to-read document on how to build and operate a better hotel, just 16 ideas.


"All the new projects that are being built, and those that are being renovated, will have more of an idea about how to build sustainably"


My mission is that all 300 of the world’s major hotel groups will put those into their building standards. I have Accor in Asia onboard and Six Senses, and once the cool kids on the block get onboard with this, then like single-use plastics, this time next year hopefully all the new projects that are being built, and those that are being renovated too, will have more of an idea about how to build sustainably.

Who were your first design inspirations?

Who were your first design inspirations?

My all time favourite inspiration is Frank Lloyd Wright, as he could design everything, from city planning to architecture, to interiors, fabrics and gardens, through to soup spoons, with all of which he was equally adept.


I am crazy for the work of the rockstar of interior design, Kelly Wearstler. She is my design hero of the 21st century and has inspired me to no end, in that she is f…ing fearless.


I delight in the light-hearted work of Kit Kemp too, as we share the joy for bespoke art and in making a hotel exuberantly homey.


I dig being constantly inspired by the interior designers Jacques Garcia, Jeffrey Wilkes, and Yabu Pushelberg, as their originality and detailing is exquisite.


I get a kick out of architects Frank Gehry, Bart Prince, and Oscar Niemeyer, as they are more sculptors than architects.

hotel designs/projects/antiques

You’ve designed 200 hotels in 30+ countries – where would you still love to be able to put one of your hotel designs, and why?

Anywhere we haven't been before! I am hesitant to work in the West as it is simply very far away for me to travel to for projects, but if a fishing lodge in South America came up, I would not say no...


How many projects are on the drawing board?

Over 30 and counting – we never stop! Next up should be the Capella Hanoi followed by The Khao Yai Hill Station which is tucked away in the mountains of north-east Thailand, only two hours away from Bangkok.


The project has upcycled abandoned train carriages converted into sumptuous guest rooms, a spa, and even a bar a la Orient Express...


You are mad about antiques. How many items do you think you have in your “Cabinet of Curiosities”?

That's for me to know, and you to find out! Kidding – it’s honestly countless and changes all the time as we are constantly adding to and taking from it.


What does it take to make it into the collection?

Buckets of story and endless quirk! We love objects which tell a tale and speak for themselves, that make people wonder – we accept atypical things only!

Biophilic design

Everyone talks about “biophilic design” now – is it a new trend, or something you’ve been doing forever and people are only just catching on?

The latter, I think! As a landscape architect (pictured above – gardens and pool at The Siam, Bangkok) before I graduated to hotel design, I learnt the principles of the stewardship of the earth, and then 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 or whatever it is, it can never compete with nature, so the key is damage control. Always let nature take pride of place.


Who do you see as great change makers in the luxury hotel space?

People who care about the environment and actually want to make changes, rather than just add to the greenwashing that goes around constantly.


And those who work in conservation, local empowerment and wildlife protection, and know how to marry that with what we do in hospitality.


This is something I wrote extensively on in my white paper Sensible Sustainable Solutions, and hope will catch on.


What’s wrong with luxury travel today?

The very word luxury and its interpretation, which is ever so unsustainable.


The lobby full of flowers changed every 10 minutes made our grandmothers gasp, but doesn't make the jaded traveller of today bat an eyelid.


In my experience true luxury is creating experiences, and teaching people something new – and all the better if they help the earth at the same time.


Authenticity may be a buzzword, but there is a reason for that - people want something real, not a cookie cutter adventure anyone can have.


"Doing things with purpose is the choice we should all strive for, I think"

What’s right with it?

That it is accessible to more and more people, and the new generation is one which loves travel and is attuned to sustainability - and insists upon it in their explorations. We need that!

Sense of purpose

You’ve said you no longer want to do anything without a purpose – has that felt a liberating thing to sign yourself up for?

I don't know if 'liberating' is the word – for me it is more an essential, a necessary decision.


The world is at the edge of a new extinction and we must all be doing all we can to reverse that. Doing things with purpose is the choice we should all strive for, I think.


What is your ‘ikigai’?

My soulmate, Jirachai. My Thai husband of 30-plus years is the singular most remarkable source of happiness of my anything-but-ordinary life.


What would you tell younger you if you could go back in time?

I have learnt that if we design a hotel for everyone, it will appeal to no one.


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