Bill Bensley, landscape and interior designer and architect, has been wowing travellers for decades with his unconventional – even provocative – designs for luxury resorts, hotels and spas.
Based in Bangkok, Bensley and his 150-strong team are behind such destinations as The Siam in Bangkok, The St Regis Bali Resort, the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa in Vietnam and, most recently, the five-star Legacy Yen Tu – MGallery by Sofitel, located amid a mountainous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Vietnam.
But for this self-identified disruptor, it’s not just about luxury. Sustainability, philanthropy and creativity are essential to his ethos. Bensley speaks to THE STAND about taking risks, fighting to effect his unique vision in the corporate world and the importance of leaving a positive legacy.
Maybe it’s no surprise that my design and architecture work has a fantastical element. My mum, dad and sister were all born in Oxford in the UK, but I was born in Disneyland California – that’s actually where the hospital was. Disneyland has such a great connotation for well-done hospitality, but so many look down their noses at the name. I grew up next to the park. My entire village worked there.
In high school, a landscaper came to my school and showed us pictures of an amusement park he was designing. I was like, “Wow! I want to do this!” And my parents were into botany and taught me to maintain my garden and our neighbours’ gardens. That’s how I got into design.
The day after graduating from university, I left for Singapore – I had a burning desire for adventure. Mathar “Lek” Bunnag [now a famous Thai architect] was my classmate at Harvard. He asked me where I wanted to go after graduation, but I had no idea. I told him I was planning to go backpacking around Europe. He was heading to Singapore and asked me to join him.
“There is no market for luxury anymore. Luxury is dead. Instead, it’s about education, experience and environment.”
“Mai mun mai tum” [if it’s not fun, I won’t do it] is the philosophy I live by. And I apply it to my work, too. If a project fails to interest me, then I don’t do it. I believe if someone doesn’t enjoy their work, then they won’t do a good job. It’s never a chore to design things and come up with new ideas. What is a chore sometimes is to make people understand your vision and your goal – though it’s an essential skill and key to the success of any project.
I’ve found the best way to get my vision across is to convey it with humour – especially when there are language barriers. Once they’re laughing, I know I have their heart.
I’ve been designing out-of-the-box hotels for some time now, so I know the buttons to push to keep the investors happy. If the hotel functions efficiently and is easy to maintain, that’s half the battle. All hotel chains know Bensley can tick that box, so it’s really up to me as lead to convince the investor to go the extra mile. But because our hotels are financially successful, this has become easier.
There are still debates, of course, but I pick my battles carefully. For example, I had a long discussion with Accor [the international hotel group] about not putting TVs in our new hotel, the Legacy Yen Tu in Vietnam – I wanted to maintain the retreat feeling. This was very important to me, but it had to be debated at the highest level, as it’s the only Accor hotel in the world without TVs in the bedrooms.
Designing a hotel is akin to producing a Hollywood movie. Hotels and movies both need a strong, compelling storyline –the best can be experienced many times. Both movies and hotels are fated by opening night.
There is no market for luxury anymore. Luxury is dead. Instead, it’s about education, experience and environment – the three Es. You can give guests a new experience, and if you can educate them about the environment, whether social or natural, that’s great, too. I also always try to incorporate local flavours in my designs, and involve the community where possible.
Helping others is important to me, and it’s a legacy I want to leave. I founded the Shinta Mani Foundation in Cambodia because I saw the community there living in depressing conditions. Kids were running around and rummaging for food in the garbage. So I decided to create the foundation, and run a small hotel and cooking school under the same name, to teach these children how to work in hospitality so that they might have a better future.
The project in Cambodia is now hardwired into the local community. We’ve provided a free school for underprivileged young adults for the past 15 years, as well as dental services for kids, better food, and water filters and wells – we’ve built 1,450 wells to date. In addition to our hospitality training school, we also support public schools in a variety of ways, and offer poor students scholarships to support their studies. Last year more than 2,800 students received an education. And we provide no-interest loans for people wanting to start their own business, or to students wanting to complete their university studies.
It has taken five years – the quickest five years – to construct the Legacy Yen Tu. The original building was a horrible mess. There was no rhyme or reason to it – there were piles of rubbish everywhere. But the surrounding environment was so good that I said, ‘Well, if we can clean this garbage up at the bottom of the valley, we can come up with a master plan.’ After the presentation, the client said, ‘I LOVE YOU!’ and popped the champagne!
See more of the Legacy Yen Tu:
When multiple projects come along, I’m like a kid with a new toy. It’s so much fun. One day you can play with this; the next day you can play with that. I also love doing the research behind a project – I went back and immersed myself in the culture of the 13th century so that I could give guests at Legacy Yen Tu an equally immersive experience. The craft used in the wallpaper, the light, the materials we used all echo monastic living in that era. Yen Tu is the cradle of Zen Buddhism, so I wanted the hotel to respect that and to envelop guests in that atmosphere.
My all-time favourite design inspiration is Frank Lloyd Wright. He could design everything from urban infrastructure to architecture, interiors to fabrics, gardens to soup spoons. And all equally as adeptly. At Bensley, we strive to do the same.
Bill Bensley was interviewed by Lysanne Currie, who writes about business and luxury travel for magazines including Robb Report, Luxury Plus, Glass Magazine and Meet The Leader.
Read more: Luxury hotelier turned philanthropist Peter Chittick talks to THE STAND about creating safe spaces for Nepalese children seeking an education.