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Man with a purpose

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon6/19/2020 6:0 AM GMT+08  • 11 min read
Man with a purpose
Famous for his unique interior and landscape designs for hotels around the world, Bill Bensley is now set to create new experiences by marrying his designs with his passion for conservation and philanthropy. That, he says, is his main purpose in life.
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SINGAPORE (June 19): While the rest of the world is in a lockdown, renowned hotel designer Bill Bensley is busy putting the finishing touches to his latest project Worldwild China, or better known as The (Luxury) Human Zoo. This seven hotel project sits on 2,000 acres in Wuchuan, located in the Guangdong province in southern China. The wildlife sanctuary and reserve will have a total of 2,000 rooms and it brings together all the elements that Bensley is passionate about: Sustainability, conservation, wildlife protection, education and unique design.

Worldwild China or better known as The (Luxury) Human Zoo is a seven hotel project that sits on 2,000 acres in Wuchuan, located in the southern China province of Guangdong

In an email interview, the Bangkok-based American architect tells Options that Worldwild China, slated to open in 2022, is a place where the animals are free and the people are in cages. “How about that! The idea is to dedicate 95% of the land for animals to run free and 5% of the land for people to observe animals — from “jails” or “viewing cages” for people — in other words, hotels, which in this case will involve (hotel operators) Conrad and Hilton,” says the lifelong environmentalist, once called the “Willy Wonka of hotel design”. He adds: “My dream is that the mistreated animals of over populated zoos in China could run free here.”

Bensley is known for designing oneof-a-kind luxury projects. He has masterminded over 200 properties in over 30 countries, ranging from a luxury condominium project in Singapore (OUE Twin Peaks on Leone Hill), idyll resorts in the Caribbean island of St Kitts to boutique hotels buried in the jungles of Thailand. But his latest project is perhaps his most unique yet and follows his earlier designs like the above mentioned The Four Seasons Tented Camp and Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand to the stunning Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented camp set amongst 400 acres of lush forest overlapping three national parks in Cambodia.

While he is known globally for his outstanding, unique and inspiring award-winning hotel, landscape and interior designs coupled with eye-catching architecture, Benley is also a concerned conservationist and passionate philanthropist.

“My main purpose in life, besides having as much fun as possible, is to help the needy, to educate, help animals and help the planet via conservation,” he explains. But this passion for conservation is anything but lip service. In a recent address to the hotel industry, he encourages them to practice Sensible Sustainable Solutions. Bensley says that 99% of hotels are built with the intention to make profit but there is still a place for resorts built with a purpose — in this case, preserving the best Mother Nature has to offer.

Shinta Mani Foundation have started an organic farm for the distribution of better crops for Cambodian farmers

Born in California to English immigrants, Benley says this passion for conservation was instilled in him early.

“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,” he says.

Travel also played a huge part in his childhood: The family would go off on holidays in their “little family trailer” almost every weekend to a camping spot. In the summers, the family would travel all over the US.

He says: “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.”

Bensley’s first job was with the landscape and engineering firm Belt Collins in Singapore in 1985. The fresh graduate lived in a black and white bungalow on Nassim Hill with a couple of friends, paying $250 a month for rent. He still has fond memories of his days living on the hill — he stayed in a lovely three-bedroom place where they always kept the windows open to let in a gorgeous breeze. Since then, he has eaten, slept and breathed Southeast Asia.

This year marks another milestone for the architect as he celebrates 30 years of his company BENSLEY, which is described as a small atelier of youthful energetic architects, interior designers, artists and landscape architects that know no limits. The offices are based in Bangkok and Bali.

In the following excerpts, Bensley gives us an insight into his purposeful life.

Earlier this year in your keynote address at the Thailand Tourism Forum, you declared that you are done with designing lavish hotels. Why?

The key term here was lavish hotels without a purpose. I love designing wild hotels with heaps of detail and texture and colour — but they need to have a good reason behind them, and do some good in the world. I am done with design just to fill hotels and put heads on beds - we want projects with a purpose, be it environmental or social. Our planet is on the brink of environmental catastrophe (if it is not already there) and hotels have the power to change a great deal. I have done lots of unique pretty hotels. Now, I want to do unique pretty hotels with a purpose.

Camping in style – the Shinta Mani Wild resort lies within Cambodia’s Kirirom National Park

Tell us more about the Sensible Sustainability Solutions.

SSS is my life’s work — it is a collection of all I have learnt about building sustainable hotels in the past 30 years. Every time we start a project at Bensley we receive a set of hotel standards which we must integrate seamlessly with our design. Over time, I realised that few of these incorporate meaningful and non-greenwashed changes to make hotel operations more sustainable. In all of our projects we design in a way that automatically leads to more sustainable operations — more natural light to save on energy costs, upcycling rather than buying absolutely everything new — these are basics in the way we work and they are not hard to follow. I decided to put together all of those ideas and practices in SSS, as a set of standards which can be slotted into any hotel companies’ existing standards. Like that hotel operators, owners, architects and designers have a clear-cut guide for integrating sustainability.

It’s been 30 years since you started BENSLEY. What were some of the highlights and what were some of the challenging times?

The highlights are too many to count — we have fun every day at the firm — if the project isn’t fun, we don’t do it! That’s my motto. However, some projects stand out. I think, at the Four Seasons Tented Elephant Camp we “done good” with the purchase and export of elephants from the dangerous streets of Bangkok to the green forests of the Golden Triangle. Both Four Seasons Koh Samui in Thailand and Capella Ubud in Bali were built without felling a single tree and with respect for mother nature — that is what is most important to me.

Every project is like a child to me, watching them grow and prosper is a wonderfully fulfilling thing. I know you aren’t meant to have favourite children, but I dearly love my Bensley Collection Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. It all started from a desire to protect the South Cardamom National Park — this is what I mean by taking on projects that have a purpose... a 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 as to dental care. I am driven to use hospitality for purposeful objectives like conservation, wildlife protection, and higher education and or cleaner water for the less fortunate.

As for challenging times, we are in one now but Bangkok is opening up again and all my team of 80 is back at the office after seven weeks working from home. I think we found silver linings in that time. At first I thought working from home would be a disaster, but by asking everyone to send me their work from the day, I happily discovered where the true talents lay, and where they don’t, and also got to dig my heels into designing like I haven’t had time to in a long time!

Where do you call home? Has it changed you, in terms of the way you look at life now?

Bangkok has been my home for over 30 years now, and my jungle-like house, Baan Botanica (@baan_botanica) has been my quarantine spot. I think this has changed the way I look at the way we work: Although there are still many places I can’t wait to explore, there is no doubt I will be travelling far less. I used to think it was essential to travel all over the world to present to clients, sometimes five countries in a week — not any more.

When 9/11 happened, it changed the way the world travelled. Now with Covid-19, what are some of the drastic changes you foresee? What is the future of travel going to look like?

I think we will travel less but travel with more purpose. The staycation will become more and more popular, and people might explore their own countries rather than the other side of the world — travel like a local? I imagine it will be a lot harder to go places, with quarantines and the like, and that people will seek out places of refuge and connection with hotels hidden in nature where one feels they have the forest to themselves will be gems in this new world. I can’t wait to get back to Shinta Mani Wild and do all sorts in the great outdoors, just me, my husband and a couple of friends, perhaps quarantining there together, fly fishing, swimming under the waterfall, going on hikes and kayak adventures and foraging from the forest. It sounds idyllic to me.

And what about hotel designs? What is it going to look like in the future?

Hotels are slowly issuing new standards and ways of operating, but we are all figuring this out as we go. I anticipate the death of the buffet, restaurants that are far more spaced out and perhaps in room dining which is left at your door for you to collect, rather than brought in to you. Stories of hotel restaurants with waiters adorned in personal protective equipment are not alluring but this may be the future for a while.

You have won a number of awards, what do these mean to you?

They all mean a great deal to me and to the BENSLEY team — we have them all propped up on a counter just past the entrance of the Bangkok office and I think seeing them there every day gives us a boost. My staff don’t always keep up with awards news so every time we get a new trophy, I walk around the office with it and congratulate them too — we make these projects come alive together. The firm is very much a family.

Tell us more about the Shinta Mani Foundation — are you looking to do more of such projects?

Our three Shinta Mani Hotels in Siem Reap house a hospitality school, while through the Shinta Mani Foundation we have started an organic farm for the distribution of better crops for Cambodian farmers, we build wells and distribute water filters to over a thousand people, administer free dental and medical care (over 9000 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. The philosophy is that of a hand up not a hand out, which is the philosophy of Shinta Mani founder Sokoun Chandpreda. I would love to do more such projects. Philanthropy and environmental conservation are the “purpose” I seek in any project, and if a client has an idea and doesn’t know how to bring it to life, I would love nothing more than to help them dream up the way forwards.

What other projects are you working on now?

The new Sukhothai in Bangkok on the riverside where villas have their own private pool, right in the heart of the city! A surfing resort called Shinta Mani Loong Bay in China, which will have a marine protected area topreserve the coast. We are also opening a Capella hotel in Hanoi inspired by the Opera House, together with actors, opera singers and set designers and set at the turn of the century.

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