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Bill Bensley: The world-renowned luxury hotel designer changing the world for the better

Bill Bensley is best known as the creative genius behind more than 200 resorts and palaces, but he’s also a passionate philanthropist and conservationist, who is a pioneer in ensuring luxury properties have a positive impact on the world.

Bill Bensley is best known as the creative genius behind more than 200 resorts and palaces, but he’s also a passionate philanthropist and conservationist, who is a pioneer in ensuring luxury properties have a positive impact on the world.

Bangkok-based Bensley thanks his dad for his love of conservation.

“Almost every weekend my dad would take us camping and fishing and from an early age I had a love of the wild environment, and my first degree is in landscape architecture so I learned how to build and co-exist with mother nature, and understand the beauty of what she gives us and how to work with her to be able to build with a smaller footprint”.

Years later, in the early 90s, when his partner took him to the countryside of Cambodia, Bensley says he saw first-hand the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

“I said right then, I’m going to help these people as much as I can.”

And he kept his word.

Luxury tented camp Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia
Luxury tented camp Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia

Bill Bensley’s wildlife warriors

At luxury tented camp Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia, Bensley hires a wildlife alliance responsible for catching poachers and stopping illegal logging.

“They are a 258-person private army, and they carry AK-47s 24/7 and are responsible for two million hectares of Cardamon Forest. Shinta Main occupies 10,000 hectares and so we work hand in hand with the Wildlife Alliance to try to slow down the poaching and illegal logging.

“We hire people who were poachers as our rangers… and have picked up 14,500 snares, numerous homemade guns, thousands of wild animals, dead and alive, and more than 1,000 chainsaws, which can cause one hell of a lot of havoc in a rainforest.”

Bensley also launched the Shina Mani Foundation, which to date has given 1,330 families access to clean drinking water, built 1,500 water wells, provided 10,000 medical visits, and seen 220 students graduate from the Shinta Mani Hospitality Training School.

“We recently had the 15th anniversary of our hospitality school in Siem Reap, where we take underprivileged kids and every single kid even before they graduate gets a placement.

“After our reunion, kids come back and tell us their stories and we had one man who had been collecting garbage when we took him on as a student, he was eating garbage to survive, and today he’s General Manager of a hotel and I am so proud to say that.”

A wildlife alliance patrols for poachers at Shinta Mani Wild

Bill Bensley’s design ethos

Bensley says he has “for many years” trying not to have a style.

“It’s really important as a designer of hotels that every person that comes to me and wants to have a hotel design wants something special of their own and unique, so a few years ago I did a few hotels deemed as maximalist, so my latest projects I’ve made it minimalist. I think either way the key to my work is that it has to be surprising.”

And if any property achieves that, it’s Shinta Mani Wild, where you zipline into the lobby.

“When I launched the idea, a lot of people said are you serious? And they knew because I’m Bill Bensley it really would come true.

“People start their vacation in a pumped-up manner and come off full of endorphins and something they never thought they would do, and people really love it.”

But regardless of what he does, it’s always with conservation in mind.

At Capella Ubud in Bali, he changed the project from 120 rooms that would have obliterated the forest into a 23-tent camp, at InterContinental Danang in Vietnam he created a permanent expansive ‘green lung’ of native wilderness, while at InterContinental Khao Yai Resort in Thailand, upcycled train carriages are used for luxury accommodation, the spa and bar which were previously rotting in the jungle.

Bill Bensley's latest project in the Sangha Trinational Park
Bill Bensley’s latest project in the Sangha Trinational Park

Looking to the future

Bensley talks excitedly about his newest projects – and for reason.

“I have a fantastic project and it’s all about conservation in Congo, and it’s the north part of French Congo so a bit safer than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’ve worked there before and been held at gunpoint four times!

“We’re doing these little camps in the Sangha Trinational Park to allow high-end travellers to see the best gorilla population in the world… and I am so excited to be able to do something similar to Shinta Mani Wild in that everything we do is going back to conservation, and I’ll have ranges to stop poachers and illegal loggers.”

He’s also working on The Ritz Reserve Palace of Pichola Lake in Udaipur Rajasthan – a 400-year-old solid sandstone palace on the shores of Pichola Lake.

“Things move at a slower pace in Udaipur. Everything is made by hand. Plaster finishes are still made by camels walking in circles, pulling a stone wheel that crushes eggshells. Paintings are painted with such fine detail most of cannot even see it and mountains of stone are carved into shapes by craftsmen who are still welding their chisels after 60 years. And all of this craft is at my fingertips to display to the world’s travellers. I am a very lucky designer indeed.”

Bensley says he is also passionate about continuing to educate the next generation about the importance of conservation and philanthropy.

“I am asked to go to universities and talk about how to build sustainably and with minimal impact, and I am so happy people are beginning to listen and understand that we have just one world and we need to take care of her.”

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