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Hotel guests arriving by zip line at the Shinta Mani Wild conservation camp in Cambodia, part of US architect Bill Bensley’s hotel chain Bensley Collection.

Eco architect Bill Bensley on his wild Asian luxury resorts that challenge how hospitality is built

  • American architect Bensley rarely fails to surprise with his sometimes wacky hotel ideas such as guests zip lining to reception and human ‘zoos’
  • Known for talking clients down from ideas based purely on profit, he strives to build with minimal impact and wants travellers to also do their part

Imagine a zoo where humans are imprisoned while animals freely roam, peering at their every move.

The mind of hospitality “starchitect” Bill Bensley wandered to such fancies when a Chinese client asked him to create a resort in China’s southeastern Guangdong province on a 750-hectare (three-square-mile) land parcel that would include a sanctuary for animals rescued from around the world.

The client had specified he wanted a zoo for the site containing multiple hotels on the beachfront of Maoming, a city facing the South China Sea.

A lifelong environmentalist, 60-year-old Bensley hates zoos – especially after seeing the overcrowding and mistreatment common in Chinese zoos. So he decided to turn the idea on its head.

“I thought, ‘Let’s take this land and dedicate 95 per cent for animals to run free, and 5 per cent [as] jails for people.’”

The client laughed at the idea. Then he said: “Let’s do it.”

Bill Bensley.

Last month, when he got the green light following an eight-hour pitch to investors, a euphoric Bensley told his 120-person team to “sharpen their pencils” and get down to business, because he wanted to have the first of the site’s seven hotels open in three years. Brands including Hilton, Hyatt, Four Seasons and JW Marriott have expressed interest.

“There is more interest than we have [room for] hotels,” he says.

Bensley will be in Hong Kong in October to speak at the Global Wellness Summit, an international gathering of industry leaders discussing the future of tourism, hospitality and wellness travel. Topics to be covered range from sustainability, architecture and design to mental wellness, physical activity, healthy eating and even dying well.

Inside one of the tents at Shinta Mani Wild. Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

Bensley rarely fails to surprise. He is the one who convinced the Four Seasons to take a punt on glamping – and now good luck getting a room at the hotel chain’s safari-inspired, perennially booked, US$3,000-a-night Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand, which opened in 2006.

Bensley followed that up with something similar at the Rosewood hotel in Luang Prabang, Laos, which opened in March 2018, where guests can canoodle under canvas by a forest waterfall, or stay in their own tree house.

And at the Shinta Mani Wild conservation camp deep in the Cambodian jungle – which opened in December last year and is part of the Bensley Collection hotel chain – guests are invited to arrive by zip line, swinging in Tarzan-style to the spot where a waiter stands ready with a chilled cocktail.

Ideally, nothing should be built in sensitive environments, but that is not [always on] the cards. So I try to mitigate the damage and build with a minimal impact
Bill Bensley

If all this sounds like a Boy’s Own adventure, it’s because Bensley is channelling his happy childhood in Southern California, where the family grew their own food and camped out in a home-made trailer built by his dad.

“Every weekend we’d pile in, all five of us, and go out into the wilderness,” he says. “I would get up at 6am and wouldn’t come back till sundown, exploring the forest, fishing and catching frogs. Really, being in the wild has always been part of my life.”

Those were the days when, still in high school, he decided to be a landscape architect – a “protector of Mother Earth”, as he puts it.

“I had no idea I would be designing resorts,” he says. But one thing led to another and he later enrolled at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, studying under famed Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

A luxury tent at the Four Seasons’ Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo: Ken Seet

Bensley’s first job was with the landscape and engineering firm Belt Collins in Singapore, where the fresh graduate was told to “go and design the Bali Hyatt swimming pool”. That was in 1984 – the year he “fell in love with Bali”.

The call of the wild informs his designs today, injected with a wackiness his professional credibility allows. His body of work spans a number of big names, and few would argue that he has done more than most to redefine the luxury hospitality industry in Asia.

After 30 years in the business, Bensley can afford to be choosy about the projects he accepts. Mostly, they need to tread lightly on the planet.

“Ideally, nothing should be built in sensitive environments, but that is not [always on] the cards,” he has said in the past. “So I try to mitigate the damage and build with a minimal impact.”

Shouldn’t be allowed. It’s insane that we’re still building that s***, and then burning fossil fuel to cool it
Bensley on boxy glass towers with windows that can’t open
At Shinta Mani Wild, for instance, the 350 hectares of river valley in which it nestles is now protected from logging, and the resort provides alternative employment to former poachers.
Bensley often talks clients down from expectations based purely on profit. To his joy, at the Capella Ubud jungle resort in Bali, he persuaded the owner to scrap plans for 120 rooms, which would have “obliterated” the forest, and opt instead for only 23 luxury tents – a design he could achieve without disturbing a single tree.

While he is proud of his achievements, there are times when he wishes he had done more. He cites a recent project in Sa Pa, northern Vietnam, in which an eight-storey building was constructed in a village, with little concern shown for its surroundings.

“I tried to convince the owner to go with [a design that was] less imposing on the town, but they wouldn’t have it,” he laments. “I was just there last week, and the interiors are gorgeous. But, honestly, the urban planning I’m a bit ashamed of.”

Burma Bar at the Four Seasons’ Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai. Photo: Ken Seet

On a recent visit to the Maldives, Bensley was also saddened to see that at a resort he had been so pleased to build 15 years ago, sand has to be constantly siphoned off the ocean floor and pumped back onto the beaches.

High-end hospitality might be his bread and butter, but Bensley is the first to call out its flaws. Don’t get him started on the single-use plastics produced by hotels in the name of branding (“They brand their garbage!” he cries of water bottles and bathroom amenities), and then “greenwashing” by having housekeeping leave a polite note asking if you would like your towels washed.

It needn’t be so, Bensley points out. The four Shinta Mani hotels that Bensley co-developed with his Cambodian business partner Sokoun Chanpreda run perfectly well without any single-use plastic, even back of house.

What about boxy glass towers with windows that can’t open? “Shouldn’t be allowed,” he sniffs. “It’s insane that we’re still building that s***, and then burning fossil fuel to cool it.”

Inside a tent at Shinta Mani Wild. Photo: Shinta Mani Wild

At the upcoming project in Guangdong, Bensley says every one of the 2,700 rooms proposed in the seven hotels will have cross ventilation, a natural method of cooling.

All Shinta Mani projects feature green roofs, organic gardens and programmes that benefit the local community – initiatives that, under the auspices of the non-profit Shinta Mani Foundation, fuel the architect’s own passions.

As Bensley himself has said: “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.”

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In one instance, the designer wanted the communities around two Cambodian properties – Shinta Mani Shack and Shinta Mani Angkor – to eat better. In collaboration with the World Vegetable Centre, a non-profit institute for vegetable research and development, and USAid, a US federal assistance agency, he established an experimental farm to test more hardy varieties of traditional Khmer crops.

“We brought out botanists from Korea to develop a pumpkin that would grow well in the poor, alkaline soils of Siem Reap,” Bensley says. But it wasn’t a vegetable the locals were familiar with, so he fitted out a tuk-tuk to haul a mobile kitchen, equipped with a big wok, to introduce it to them.

“We take all the veggies we want these guys to grow, and cook it Cambodian style. Then we give them a garden package of five different types,” he says.

Capella Ubud in Bali, where Bensley persuaded the owner to opt for 23 luxury tents in a design that would not disturb any trees.
Bensley plans to talk about all these issues – including how travellers can do their part by pressing lodging owners and operators – during his keynote address at the Global Wellness Summit, to be held in Hong Kong for the first time. The summit will feature, among others, Mark Hoplamazian, president and CEO of Hyatt Hotels; Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas; Dr Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Therapy; and Hong Kong’s Peggy Chan, whose vegetarian diner Grassroots Pantry recently closed to make way for a higher-end concept, called Nectar.

Bensley doesn’t care who he upsets when he challenges how hotels and resorts are designed and built. He wants to address questions he believes the conscientious traveller of the future will be asking, such as: does the hotel respect its environment? Does it respect the people who engage with it? Does the hotel add in any way to the community?

Delegates at the summit might be in for a wild ride. Nancy Davis, chief creative officer and executive director of the summit, concedes that Bensley is known for his “unpredictable, memorable presentations”.

“We are very keen to lend him the stage in Hong Kong to see what unfolds,” she says.

The 13th annual Global Wellness Summit will take place at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong from October 15 to 17.