World Travel Magazine speaks to Bill Bensley, the Steven Spielberg of Exotic Luxury Travel where adventure & whimsy meet world-class design.
How did a boy from the O.C. (Orange County, California) create a world-renowned business in Asia and become The King of Luxury, Exotic Travel? Easy. He followed his heart.
While most of his friends were grabbing a surf board in search of tasty waves, Bill was more interested in making some of his own. Travelling to all corners of Asia from the 80s on infused and informed his sense of exoticism. Bill said that the design of hotels are akin to making movies––complete with script, scenery, props and cast. He walked us through the drama of arrival at the highly acclaimed, much anticipated Shinta Mani Wild.
“Shinta Mani Wild is the doorstep to 800,000 square kilometres of the wilderness of Cambodia’s oldest parks––Kirirom Bokor and Cardamon. I have written the script for the guest arrival to start with a bang, in that the guest will wind their way through a narrow jungle path on the back of an ATV, climb a tree, strap into a zip line and whiz across 400 metres of forest, and a magnificent waterfall…twice!”
Sounds like a scene straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark! You had me at zip line. Move over Spielberg. Why not zip through waterfalls twice?
When asked about the adventure of acquiring the land for Shinta Mani Wild, Bill shared that the whole deal was a bit of a fluke. His partner’s father mentioned off-handedly that the concession within the national parks was due to go to auction about ten years ago. They won the auction, thinking themselves lucky at the time.
In a moment of reflection, he shared, “I often think we bit off more than we can chew as the task at hand, controlling rampant logging and illegal wildlife trade, is exhausting.”
The lure of celebrity helped to define the experience that will be Shinta Mani Wild. Bill has said that he hoped guests would have the feeling of what it would have been like to be on a luxury safari in the jungles of Cambodia with Jackie O. When asked to share what that idea means to him, Bill explained that Jackie O visited during a time of peace, adding it was perhaps the zenith of recent Cambodian history.
“It was a time when few people visited Cambodia, but those that did were treated like royalty. This is how we will treat our guests.”
Bill’s accolades run the gamut from King of Exotic Luxury Resorts to one of the 100 most creative people in the world. When we asked Bill to share his current favourite exotic and creative example of wonder and fun, he didn’t miss a beat touting the wacky idea of shoe-horning a JW Marriott Beach Resort into a 150+ year-old university named Lamarck.
The property, known as JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, has a Vietnamese soul with the passion of the university’s namesake French naturalist. The design holds hands with history and sustainability, full of Bill’s signature myth and whimsy. Qualities that speak to his penchant of treating work like a full-time hobby. When asked where this philosophy of work began he said, “Gardening.”
This playful, inspirational outlook on his life’s work was fostered by many mentors over the years. Bill shared how lucky he was to have had Lek Bunnag, a classmate at Harvard as his architectural mentor, Jeffrey Wilkes as his interior design mentor, and now Jason Friedman as his hotel business mentor. In Bill’s enthusiastic fashion he rattled off many more, a who’s who in the of world art, architecture, and horticulture.
“I admire and have been inspired by a whole host of good folks including Geoffrey Bawa, Isamu Noguchi, Diego Rivera, Goetz Hagmuller, Jaya Ibraham, Made Widjaya, Anouska Hempel, but most importantly my spiritual mentor and my partner in life; Jirachai Rengthong.”
Wondering about the ultimate compliment someone could pay, Bill said he’s gotten one a lot that he enjoys. It happens when he’s visiting projects like The Siam in Bangkok or JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, both new and built in a period style. Guests frequently ask, “Wow, how long did it take you to renovate this project!”
The ultimate compliment for a man who likes fantasy to transcend reality. This had us curious about what a creative mind like Bill’s enjoys in his downtime. When asked about his current read, he mentioned several books. Recently, while fly fishing in Mongolia, he finished The Alchemist and shared that he felt it was everything everyone said it would be. He’s currently halfway through First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung, about the Cambodian atrocities. Next on deck will be The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Boundless creativity, energy and whimsy have been great companions on this wild, unscripted ride of The King of Exotic Luxury travel. We look forward to his next adventure.