“I don’t have a job, I have never worked a day in my life. I have a great hobby that I enjoy incredibly,” says
Bill Bensley, the designer of such renowned resorts as Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp Chiang Rai, Capella Ubud Bali and InterContinental Danang, in an interview with Ajeng G. Anindita.
Among the world’s top hotel designers who really create something special with some serious storylines, Bill Bensley surely stands out. With nearly four decades in the industry behind him and a portfolio of more than 200 luxury properties in 40-plus countries, the Southern California-raised, Harvard-educated, Bangkok-based designer and author is known for his whimsical approach and for his remarkable attention to the details of everything from staff uniforms to the look of menus and signage, and even the choices of music guests hear as they wander around the resort.
The Bensley design studio has created some of Asia’s most outstanding resorts, including Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp Chiang Rai, Capella Ubud Bali, JW Marriott Phu Quoc, Anantara Resort & Spa Koh Samui and InterContinental Danang. Bensley is passionate about conservation and preserving the environment, as he revealed in an exclusive interview. Highlights:
On your website, you say: “Hotels and movies both need a strong compelling storyline.”
Yes, we are just finishing up a lovely hotel in the Yen Tu valley which is a Buddhist place of pilgrimage (in Vietnam). There were 700 years of “storyline” for us to pick up and run with here. I chose to employ the earliest style of C14th architecture that, I think, may produce our strongest piece of architecture to date. The lobby is celebration of the king’s life before he left his riches for the life of a Buddhist monk.
Tell us the thinking behind Capella Ubud.
It’s unusual, in that we have created a place to stay which is based on a Dutch Army camp of the early 19th century. Most visitors to Bali are completely unaware that Indonesia, including Bali, was a Dutch colony and was taken by force – not diplomacy. We have created a camp with the DNA of tempoe doeloe (the old times) by way of making everything temporary and ready to move at a moment’s notice. This shows great respect for the environment, and certainly the sacred Wos River. By building tents that only touch the ground in a few points, we do not have to alter the natural drainage patterns of the land, which means in turn that there is very little erosion and no siltation of the river.
The other benefit of tents as opposed to regular hotel buildings is that the footprints are small and can fit between the trees of the forest. We managed to erect the entire camp without cutting down a single tree. Not many can say that.
Furthermore, you may know I became a “Baliophile” in the early 80’s. I love Bali, and champion the way it was. There is too much built in Bali now and the buildings that are being erected are visual eyesores. At our camp, however, by way of clever site planning, the low scale of the tents, keeping existing forest intact and by way of real live camouflage material for some of the tent roofs, we have eliminated the camp from view. Yes, from outside of our site, it is difficult to see any of our camp. It is successfully hidden – a virtue more Bali projects should attempt.
If you could redesign one of your creations, what would it be?
That’s a really good question, as most just want to hear about the triumphs. I am working on a hotel now in Sapa, North Vietnam. It is a small hill station in the cool mountains established by the French in the late 19th century. My client asked for a 250-room hotel, and we did our best to try to break down the scale of the hotel to look like it was built by a series of owners, organically, over time. While that works, somewhat, the scale of the building really is too big for the village of Sapa. I wish it was half the size. I could wax on forever about my Sapa project. I cannot see us opening properly for at least another six months. Some of the hotel, like the lobby and the spectacular indoor pool, is almost done.
Why should people go to northwest Vietnam?
To be swept away in fantasy, to enjoy a pristine hill town and hill tribe mountains environment outside of Sapa, and to ride the new cable car up to the top of one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains (Mt. Fansipan).
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you find your talent and passion for design?
I think perhaps I have more passion than talent. The wonderful architects, interior designers, landscape architects, artists, horticulturists that have been part of the Bensley design team for the past 25 years or more have way more talent than me.
How would you describe your signature style?
For years now, I have gone out of my way to avoid a signature style, as I think my clients would much rather have a unique hotel unlike any other than something is recognized as another Bensley project. I have a rule in our design studio and that is never, ever, repeat even the smallest design. Everything has to be bespoke. Having said that, there are three principles, three E’s, that might connect our work cognitively.
I believe that, to be a truly successful hotel today, one has to educate, or provide a unique experience, and or be responsible environmentally, with either social aspects or those of nature. These are my three E’s: experience, environmentalism and education. In my new book, Escapism, I appeal to all those of the hospitality ilk to think about those three E’s for every new project to make the travel industry a better place. I want to share the few things that I have learned in the past few years.
What is the biggest challenge you face when dealing with clients and operators?
Getting them beyond off-the-shelf solutions. I realise that hotel standards are written for a good purpose, but secretly I wish they would all go up in a puff of smoke overnight – well, at least for us! There are over half a million hotels in this world and the vast majority fall into the bland “heads on beds” formula.
After all these years, what keeps you motivated?
The idea that we just might be able to influence hospitality, at least incrementally. The idea of setting an example that conservation just might be more valuable than extraction in terms of a country’s natural resources. I speak of my new project, Shinta Mani Wild. I bought a huge piece of forest at a logging auction near the Cardamom National Park in Cambodia, where poaching and illegal logging are rampant. As I am not a lumberjack, I want to protect this gorgeous asset for the Cambodians by way of a sustainable 15-tent, high-yield, low-impact experiential camp. We are committed to fight poaching and logging in the park with Wildlife Alliance.
What do you love most about your job?
First of all, I don’t have a job, I have never worked a day in my life. I have a great hobby that I enjoy incredibly. To keep the interest in that multi-faceted hobby is easy, as clients pay me to do what I love – and that is travel to new places, to discover, to absorb and to (pardon me) regurgitate all that I have learned in the form of a gorgeous hotel.
What do you do in your free time?
We (my absolute darling of a husband of 30 years, Jirachai and I) travel. Big time – three months a year, every year. We follow the suggestion of the Dalai Lama to visit one or more new places every year. We travel consistently, as curiosity, for us, is never-ending. We love the adventure of finding that unbeaten path to the most wondrous spot that everybody else seems to have overlooked. I love to learn and seek out knowledge. And that can be as simple as visiting a local temple, or foraging for pink mushrooms on the floor of an ancient forest. We have been to 92 countries so far and next year we plan to get to number 97. 2019 is a big year for us, as I turn 60, and that means that I can pick the places that I really want to go: Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Romania.
Do you have favourite hotels by other designers?
Yes. My top 10 are: Hoshinoya Kyoto, Huka Lodge (it’s my favourite as my love is fishing), Villa Feltrinelli, Mombo Camp, Botswana, Awasi Atacama Chile, JK Place Capri, Rosewood Casa de la Sierra Nevada in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Then there’s Amankora Gangtey, Ballyfin Ireland, La Mamounia Marrakech, Saffire Freycinet, Tasmania.
What’s on your bucket list?
Honestly, I have so many! Travel through Tanzania, Madagascar and Reunion. I want to visit Bwindinia Park, Uganda at Sanctuary Gorilla forest camp, volcanoes lodge and mahogany springs lodge to see the mountain gorillas. Fly fish in Alaska and the Parry Islands of Canada, search for the narwhale north Canada, then walk the island of Skye. The list goes on!