The first thing visitors see on Bill Bensley’s website is the word disruption in block caps. The word is scrawled over a photograph of two people in a taxidermy shop. One is surreptitiously singing into a vintage microphone, while the other looks on, anguished, and a dog looks away. Welcome to the mad design world of Bill Bensley, designer of luxury resorts, hotels, spas and, as his website exclaims, “sometimes even palaces”.
Bensley’s daring, innovative projects span the farthest corners of South East Asia, from Cambodia to Phuket, via a converted university in Vietnam, and a Malaysian Sultan’s royal palace. The designer resides in Bangkok and is infectiously wacky. Full of passion about conservation and the death of luxury, he is a dazzling conversationalist.
Bensley uses his wiry mind to reach new horizons in sustainable luxury. He believes “luxury is dead”, but he’s being provocative, because his environmentally and socially conscious escapes, while supporting and celebrating local communities, are also stunning, brimming with high design.
Bill’s latest project, Shinta Mani Wild, is opening later in 2018 (keep an eye on the website for dates). It will be a private nature sanctuary within one of Cambodia’s oldest wild parks. It is one of the last Cambodian habitats for bears, elephants, gibbons and tigers. Bill’s radical “luxury camp experience” occupies a previously unprotected spot of natural importance, and guests who go there will help fund the environment, whilst living in luxury tents. Waterfalls line the unchartered waters, and guests go out on exploratory trips in boats designed by Bill.
But despite the accolades that have pouring in over the years, Bill still admits his biggest fear is that “no one will come” as he prepares for the opening of his immersive wildlife resort experience.
Bill Bensley gave Hotel Designs his pearls of wisdom.
If I had to describe my personality in three words, I’d say Serious, Inquisitive and Wacky. People think interior designers are all self-important prima donnas! People also think interior design is easy to do…
Honestly i believe that luxury is dead. Our guests look to travel for a unique experience, and we know that environmental and societal sustainability is a growing part of that experience.
My biggest sustainability challenge is keeping forests intact. People understand what sustainability means now, and ‘green washers’ are looked down upon, and sustainability is taking new forms that last longer.
Talking to locals is imperative. We have a team that works in the communities we build in, who know the village heads and a good many of the families in the villages where we work. Usually we start with the government’s assessment of poor families that is split into category 1 and 2, with people in category one being the most at risk. Once we get this list, we go and speak with families about their needs and challenges and determine how best to support them.
Our new Cambodian project Shinta Mani is hard-wired into the local community. Where to start? We have had a free hotel school for underprivileged young adults for the past 15 years AND dental services for kids, and wells, better foods, water filters… We have a hospitality training school, and we also support public schools in a variety of ways, and support poor students with scholarships to support their studies.
We work with Global Dental Relief to bring dental care to poor rural school children. Last year we helped over 2,800 students receive dental care and education. We usually run 3 clinics a year each for about 1 month.
We’ve also built 199 private homes. Along with 1,450 water wells, and we help families when emergency food aid, as well as providing no interest loans for people wanting to start their own business, or to students wanting to complete their university studies. So far, we have helped to start 60 family run businesses.
An ideal day spent at Shinta Mani…. Would be to go into the villages and see just how Cambodians really live, and perhaps do something to help. We are opening up a huge part of Cambodia that even the most well traveled has never seen. And it is SPECTACULAR.
The three essential ingredients for a hotel opening are… An untold story, an original design and superb associates.
I’m most proud of… The mural of King Jayavarman, a Khmer King who reigned from 1181 to 1218, at the Shinta Mani Angkor Bensley Collection. We scaled his robe up by 100 times. The statement feature spans the courtyard walls from inside to outside. That crazy idea really worked out well.
The biggest mistake I have made in my career so far was… Building a yellow submarine in a swimming pool at a golf club in Singapore in 1985… Atrocious!
Every morning I wake up with… One of my Jack Russels licking my face, wanting to go for a run.
I unwind every by… Running through fields and streams with my four dogs.
Shinta Mani Wild opens later this year. Bill Bensley is also currently working on the Rosewood Luang Prabang, Capella Ubud, and Yet Tu In in Veitnam