Understanding To The Nth Degree - Bill Bensley - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 143

Dan Ryan: today's guest is someone who rejects normality in his pursuit to disrupt the hospitality industry. He's designed more than 200 unique hotels across the world, and I can say they're very unique as a super fanboy.

He is a strong advocate for making the industry more sustainable and integrates environmentally conscious decisions into his projects. He's the author of the book, more Escapism, sitting up over my left. Or right shoulder, whichever way you guys are looking, but it's been there since I moved into my new Barnes studio.

He is the director of Bensley Studios ladies and gentlemen, bill Bensley. Welcome Bill.

Bill Bensley: Thank you very much, Dan. It's a


Dan Ryan: It's the, well, actually, I'm gonna say the pleasure is all mine. Um, having lived in Southeast Asia for a couple of months in 2018 with my wife and three wonderful children, we were based down in Ho Chi Minh. But every weekend, because everything is so dense there, we'd go up to D Nang, we'd go up to Hanoi, we went out to Laos, we went, uh, down to Singapore.

And I think we must have stayed at about. Five or six of your properties, and I hadn't really heard of you before being out there. And I've been in the hospitality design world mostly as a purveyor of furniture, but I'd never walked into properties like these properties in my entire life. And I got the feeling, and I know every project has constraints, but I feel like. The projects that I had stayed in, there were very few constraints. I mean, you were just over the top creating these different worlds. Um, and so I'm a huge fan and the experience was incredible. That being said, before we get into all of that, I'd love to just ask, as I ask every guest, how do you define hospitality

Bill Bensley: I think that hospitality is sharing, and for me as a landscape architect, architect, interior designer, it's about sharing what I've learned about a particular place in which I'm building. I. So, for example, you just mentioned Da Nang, that before we even started Da Nang the Intercontinental in Da Nang, we visited something like twenty-five different temples.

And, and I went and sketched for about about two weeks. And I sketched very, uh, very comprehensively What I thought was the most interesting corners of Vietnamese temples and I used those, that inspiration then to, to be able to build, um, a hundred and fifty-eight room hotel. And it feels fresh and modern, but it's also deep.

Uh, it also draws upon a deep history of architectural, um, history.

Dan Ryan: I think what's also interesting I. Is many of the friends and clients that I have who design hotels, I think back in the, in the, in the recesses, they all, and I do too, aspire to be a hotelier.

So like, it's really interesting and like really worthy to note that not only are you an architect, landscape architect and interior designer, but you also are a hotelier. So, yeah. How does, how, how do you define hospitality as a hotelier?

Bill Bensley: I define hospitality as a hotelier also, as as sharing And the reason that I became a hotelier is, is really just to have the apparatus in which to share, uh, the good things that come from out of hospitality. For example, this project that we've done at Shintamani Wild, it is sits on the, the southern portion of the Cardamom National Forest, which isn't the southern part of, of, uh, Cambodia.

It has. Every single day. It has hundreds of people that are poaching and taking illegal woods. And, and what I want, what I want to do by building a small fifteen-tenth hotel, is to be able to then share the future of this beautiful property for Cambodia's kids to be able to, to be able to conserve it.

I'm very much a conservationist, so. By taking a hold in, being the, how to say, the caretaker of this property, at least for a couple, few more years while I'm alive, is that I'll be able to share with the future, uh, uh, citizens of Cambodia, probably one of the best, most beautiful corners of their country.

And by, by, by making enough money to be able to police it, to preserve it and conserve it for. Hopefully it


Dan Ryan: curious in Cambodia, what kind of. Flora and fauna are, is being poached and harvested illegally. Is it? Is it teak?

Bill Bensley: Yeah, no, the teak disappeared a long time

Dan Ryan: Oh,


Bill Bensley: and the rosewood disappeared a long time ago. So now it's basically anything and everything that, that the villagers can get their hands on.

But most importantly it is the, the wildlife

that's there. So we, yeah, like for example, The, cardamom, rain forest. We used to have wild tigers there, but in, in, in the year 2003, the last ones were shot.

Dan Ryan: Oh

Bill Bensley: Um, the, we used to have a lot more wild elephants than we do now. We still have some wild animals that pass through our property.

But there's also, uh, mammals like the Pangolins and the Binturongs, these beautiful big cats and the clouded leopards

and even a clouded leopard, you know, very close to my property, was caught in a snare about four months ago and, and died.

Dan Ryan: Oh, that's a

Bill Bensley: So, um, you know, the snares, the snares, uh, are something that's very dangerous and the, the villagers that were living around the park.

They placed many at one time. In fact, since we've been there in the last six years, we've picked up over Fourteen-thousand snares.

Dan Ryan: Holy shit.

Bill Bensley: Holy

shit is

Dan Ryan: crazy.

Bill Bensley: It's crazy. Yeah,

Dan Ryan: and they're so, and, and they're so indiscriminate as well. It's, um, it's horrible. They can catch anything. Yeah. I've seen the effects of that. Um. In Africa, Africa, um, out on safari. And I haven't actually seen an animal with a wound, but like leading up to it and doing research, you see all how indiscriminate and terrible, um, all of these snares are.

I don't want to go, go down that road, but I appreciate, um, that you are conserving and does that conservation because you, you started off as a landscape architect, correct? Was that your beginning? I.

Bill Bensley: That's that. That's correct. You have an undergraduate in landscape

architecture from Cal,


Dan Ryan: Oh, okay. So from San Luis? Obispo.

Bill Bensley: Pomona.

Dan Ryan: Oh, Pomona. Okay, cool. Um, so I'm curious because one of the things that I notice in traveling to, whether it's Danang or QuAC or the Rosewood out in Laos, the landscape. Stepping onto the property, it's like you're, I'm going into a journey somewhere else. And I think, um, I don't know if that's a virtue of I'm, I'm sure it's both, but like, just what can grow down there and the scale that you're able to work with.

Do you start with the landscape first and then think about everything else? Or do you have a process of, do you start interior, exterior landscape? How do you approach a project? Is there any similarity?

Bill Bensley: Uh, yeah, that's a very good question, Dan. Dan and I am, as you may, well. I guess, uh, a lot of our projects are, we are given beautiful, absolutely untouched natural sites. So the key is to be able to understand the idiosyncrasies, how mother nature has been operating there, how, how the, how the sites drain, how they take on the sun in the morning, where the winds come from and so forth to understand the idiosyncrasies.

Of that, of that microenvironment. And then it's the attitude the attitude of the architect, and my attitude as being a landscape architect first and an architect second, is that no matter what I do, when, no matter what great idea I have and building architecture, it's never going to be as good as what Mother Nature has given us.

So my job. A hundred percent is to mitigate damage.

Dan Ryan: So basically if, if I'm hearing you correctly, you're approaching these burdens, I guess more often than not, burden, um, bucolic incredible landscapes and re reforming them.


Bill Bensley: that's, no, not


Non-reforming understanding to the nth degree to understand them and to live on the site and understand everything about the site before you even think about what you're gonna, what you're going to do to build on the site. Because I believe, even though I'm a pretty darn good architect, no matter what I put on that site, it's never gonna be as good as what Mother Nature has already given us.

Dan Ryan: Hmm.

Bill Bensley: So I want to put on something that's very light and, and does not interfere with how Mother Nature has been operating there for the last million years. Does that

make sense?

Dan Ryan: Yeah, it does. And then, okay, so then you're really listening to the land and what Mother Nature is throwing at you. Then you mentioned, you mentioned Da. Nang. Now being sketching out the corners of these really ornate Vietnamese temples, which tend to be typically very ornate, right? And then I, But I would say what struck me about Da Nang was, well first of all, I have just the fondest memories of my three kids sitting at the window in those little pajamas they give with the monkeys out on the roof approaching them.

And I have some great pictures I'll put up here. So like, thank you for setting the stage, the set in the setting for like that. Really powerful memory for me. Um, but I also found as over-the-top as that property is, there's also a real subtlety to it and just like sublime beauty overlooking the South China Sea or, um, and just with, with all the life and the fauna, the flora, it's. I'm actually surprised you said you would do it by sketching the corners of Vietnamese temples. 'cause when I contrast that to like the JW in Phu Quoc, that place is over the top and really ornate and it's like you're transplanted almost into, or transported into almost like a Harry Potter, Hogwarts world of, what is that?

LaFrac or something? University. And, but they're, they're so diametrically different. Right.

Bill Bensley: Right. The, the, what really works about that, about intercontinental and Danang is that, is that what permeates the most strongly in that project is the bay itself. It's these two big peninsulas of, uh, of hillsides that come to the, from the south and from the north looking out towards the east in this big open ocean.

That permeates throughout every single corner of the hotel. So that, that is, we, how to say, the architecture once again became secondary, and I made it very clear that I wanted the, the natural beauty of the site to be primary. And that is still today the primary, um, impact that, that people come away from that



Dan Ryan: Yeah. And, and I just, I remember having breakfast in those pods hanging out over that bay, seemingly just floating almost like a, I was in a bird's nest. Um,

Bill Bensley: It is a Vietnamese hat turned upside down.

Dan Ryan: oh, see, I didn't even know that. Okay. Now at looking at all of the, like at all of your properties that I've been to, one of the really interesting surprises that I get is, and I could be in the corner of a bathroom, I could be somewhere. It's like looking down in the corner up in these places that you wouldn't expect, you find so much surprise, whether it's the tile work, the mill work that's built in there, um, just all of the different. Elements of decoration, like in at the Rosewood, all those little elephants at, I forget the name of that bar, but I don't even know where you found all those elephants or carved all those little elephants. But there's just all of this surprise. It's almost like those, those pieces, those artwork online where you, you see a scene and then you drill down to the book they're reading, and then it zooms into that scene and then you drill down and you zooms into a whole other world. And that's where I, so again, like having working in North America on projects. I just find we have so many constraints here, and I don't wanna say you don't have constraints, but like I get the feeling that you're, the, the palette that you're armed with in tackling most of the projects that you're on, it seems to be unlimited.

Am I wrong?

Bill Bensley: No, you're not


Dan Ryan: Wow. it's like you it's like you have a dream canvas.

Bill Bensley: right? Yeah, pretty much. You know, we we're given, uh uh, oftentimes we're given a budget. And as long as I, I stay within that budget pretty much more or less that I can do what I like. And that's what clients like.

Dan Ryan: So how do you go about, 'cause there must be a mutual attractiveness to finding. An owner or ownership group that really believes in you and your abilities and, and your, your ability to transform. How do you find this, how do you approach that where you find that mutual attractiveness that they, that they really stand behind you?

Bill Bensley: Well, there's lot, there's lots of, you know, in any, in any particular, um, any particular year. You know what, normally once a once a week, three times a week, five times a week, we're asked to do a new project. So it's about this mutual, uh, dating, you know, at the beginning. And, and most people that are asking us to do a new project, they kind of know what they've been to Danang and they've been to, you know, the Capella Ubud and so forth.

And they, they know that that layering of artwork that I do, they know that that Bensley ain't gonna be cheap. right.

Dan Ryan: Yeah.

Bill Bensley: Yeah. They, they get it already. So they're, I don't have to do a lot of education.

Dan Ryan: Hmm. Now I've also, and I've also heard that walking, I don't know if it was with an owner or someone I know, but you may have been walking a site somewhere early on, and as you're talking. Jump into a pool while talking to them. Is that true?

Bill Bensley: I don't remember that one, but it can very well be true.

Dan Ryan: Ugh.

Bill Bensley: I I, the first time I went into Da, Nang on the beach I was with my client and Dr. Chang. He is a good buddy of mine now. In fact, I just had dinner with him last night. I went skinny dipping in the, in the, in the, in the ocean. Yeah, it was, and he, we, he


kids me about

Dan Ryan: Before any site


Bill Bensley: before any site work, and I do that for every single beach project that we do, just to sort of bless the. It's a ritual of mine, so,


Dan Ryan: well, it also must really connect you to the site like you were

Bill Bensley: exactly,

Dan Ryan: the Wow, okay. So for all the designers out there when you're approaching a new site, like definitely disrobe and


Bill Bensley: And jump in.

Dan Ryan: jump in.

hope with your heart


Bill Bensley: exactly.

Dan Ryan: Um, I'm also curious about in your process when you, okay, so after you jump in at a, at a beach property or others, you, you mentioned earlier you would stay on site. Are you staying in a tent?

Bill Bensley: Uh, yes. Yeah, I stay in a tent and then I, I put up, um, I put up, uh, temporary tents and then I, I bring in big drawing tables, and then I'll actually draw a sketch on site,

uh, just to be able to understand the, as I said, the idiosyncrasies and, and, and get some initial thoughts down, but. Yeah, it's about really understanding the site before you do anything with it.

Dan Ryan: And then with Shintamani Wild, I think you said there's 15 tents, but they're like. Super tents. Right. I, I've seen the pictures. They're really thick gauge, like, they're like structures,

almost like a tree house.

yeah, Okay. Are you staying at a tent like that or are you in like a Coleman tent that you're rolling out with some building tables

Bill Bensley: Now it's a, now it's a p uh, pup tent. It's something that just a single man pup tent Yeah. That you can put on your back.

Dan Ryan: how And I do that every, every summer in, in, in Mongolia. I go up to go up fishing for two a month and I'll, I'll, I'll sleep in a tent up there and do long walks and horseback riding for maybe 300 kilometers per, per, per summer.

Bill Bensley: That, that's what I really enjoy doing

is real. No phone, no nothing. Just get


from it all.

Dan Ryan: so I've been driving, my son is, uh, 13 and or 14. He just turned 14. And we drive, I drive him to all these sport events everywhere in a, like I. It's just like my job. I'm an Uber driver, but one of the things we do to pass the time is listen to audio books and I ju we're in the middle of this trilogy or Tetralogy about Genghis, Khan and the yurts.

You're staying in your own tent. You're not in Mongolia, you're not staying in like a big gur or a big yurt.

Bill Bensley: It in some. In some places we do we, but that moves with us on the boat as well. The gear is gonna move and we unpack the gear and it moves on onto a raft, and then we've take that down the


But yeah, it moves with


Dan Ryan: so this is really important. You, you, this is a ritual of yours every summer.

Bill Bensley: for the last eight years. Now, this summer will be my


Dan Ryan: Okay. I'm, I was talking about this recently with someone about the need to disconnect and recharge and I think all of us are so busy, um, in our lives. That it's really difficult to do that and we have to make a concerted effort. What was, what drove you eight years ago to start that ritual for yourself and what do you get out of it?

Bill Bensley: Um, it, the, what, what drove me to do that? Is this the best fishing in the world? It wasn't necessarily to disconnect, but that's a byproduct that I've learned to appreciate as opposed to, uh, as opposed to get freaked out about. Right.

Dan Ryan: Hmm.

Bill Bensley: Uh, and it, and it is so wonderful. And every year I always go with my. My staff, my Thai staff and friends and such.

And, and we actually talk to each other and, and for hours and hours we'll play cards and, and really connect. And it's so surprising how, how, how much difference it makes. And then when you get back to the airport, you know, a month later and there's Wi-Fi, and everyone stops talking to each other and everyone concentrates on a piece of plastic.

It's just the funniest thing.

Dan Ryan: So you're there with friends and staff and going around in these mob, in these gurrs and you're almost like, uh, your own Bensley horde


and catching fishing.

Bill Bensley: Genghis Khan horde

Dan Ryan: Yeah. Oh, wow.

Bill Bensley: Catch and release.

Dan Ryan: Wow, that's amazing. Um, and then what, what about the fishing is so good there? Is it, are they just like big sturgeon? I, I, I envision like these pre prehistoric giant fish, or are they just like trout that we would have in North America?

Bill Bensley: Well, there, there is a, a land, a land-based, uh, salmon Salmonoid family. It's called a Taiman. And in, in, uh, in China there used to, they used to have them there as extinct there. And so. And these, these timon will run to five foot six foot long, so they're huge. But then there's also trout and uh, and, and that averages something like 22 inches or so.

And I, my record in one day for 22 inch trout is 88.

Dan Ryan: What?

Bill Bensley: Yeah.

Dan Ryan: as you're talking, I think it might be the timing is that the one where you actually could, like, if you're using a fly rod, you would use like, um, like a mouse or some like mammal, like you, they take big bait, right?

Bill Bensley: Yeah. Yeah. We use


Dan Ryan: Rats. Wow. So those are

huge monsters.

Bill Bensley: about 6, 6, 8 inches long. Yeah. It's a, uh, uh, a wet fly

when that, that pops along the surface like it's trying to get away.

Dan Ryan: Hmm.

Bill Bensley: We use that when the, the water's, uh, muddy. But, but yeah, we, we use a number of different

Dan Ryan: Oh, wow.

Bill Bensley: supplies.

Dan Ryan: You, we might have to do an in-person recording there. Um, and I, I might, I might invite myself to come sit with you. Um, I've always had a dream to go to Mongolia.


Bill Bensley: it's pretty nice.

Dan Ryan: So for most of the properties that I would look at in your book, um, online, the ones I've experienced, they seem to be in very lush environments.

And I wanna share, uh, we share a mutual friend Namgal, who was involved with the Shintamani Mustang and which just opened, and I, I've known him for years and he. Having this hotel be redeveloped and open in the midst of Covid there, it is not a lush environment. It's in the foothills of the Himalaya.

Right? And to go from what it was through Covid open, and then pretty much immediately land on the cover of Conde Nast. Um, that just sounds like an incredible, um. Alignment of the planets to have all that happen on that

Bill Bensley: right.

Dan Ryan: But how, as a land approaching the landscape first you can't really do much.

Or I'm, I'm probably wrong, but like, there's not a lot to do with the, with the landscape there because it's, it's almost like a moonscape. Am I wrong? I.

Bill Bensley: Um, well, you know, the, our, our neighbors in the village of Marfa, they, they've planted a lot of apples and we've also planted apples. And, and while the soils are really rocky, I. As long as you keep it irrigated, they will grow, but they'll grow very slow. But they, they're producing apples there in down in Marfa.

It's a little bit more protective than our


Dan Ryan: Okay. And then with the brand of Shintamani, how did you, how did that come to be? You're, you're working on all of these other. Properties for others and then Shintamani rolls around. How did, how, what was the genesis of Shintamani?

Bill Bensley: The, the genesis was that in, back in 2000 and 2000, they had a fellow named Sikoon Chanpreda, who is, uh, a Thai, uh, Cambodian, uh, the nicest man in the world. I call him. And he asked me to, to design his hotel in Siem Reap, and it is called the Hotel De. To replace the bullet-Pocked Hotel of Hotel De La Pe, which was built around the 1920s and it was, it had been shot up by the Khmer Rouge.

And so even when we were there, you know, the, the Khmer, you could still hear the gunshot of the Khmer Rouge. So we, we worked on it and we opened this project, this hotel De la Pe beautiful hotel in about 2004. But. When we opened that there was no other hotels in Siem Reap. There was nothing there. So we had to, to look for people to work in the hotels because nobody could, nobody knew how to, to cook, you know, in, in, in a reasonable western sort of way.

No one knew how to make beds 'cause there were no beds. Right. And, and nobody knew anything about hospitality. So, uh, we had a, we were staying in a little tiny house and we had a couple of rooms there where we were all staying there and we had, you know, a few maids and whatnot. So we decided in, within our own kitchen is to start training kids.

And we did. And after about a year or so, we had, we had, uh, enough people to be able to open the doors of Portel De La Pe, which by the way, is now Park Hyatt.

Dan Ryan: Ah.

Bill Bensley: And, and we, we kept that, uh, we kept that hospitality, even though we had enough people working for us, we kept that open. And because we didn't have the heart to, to close it.

For example, Dan, the first year that we said, we're gonna open up a school and the, and you could, we would put you up, we would, uh. Feed you and clothe you and give you the books and teach you something. And for a whole year. Um, and we have thirty-five positions. We had over 2000 kids show


Dan Ryan: Whoa.

Bill Bensley: in order in order to, and the hardest part, you know, over the first 10 years was basically saying, no, no, you can't.

And so we just picked the poorest ones last about a two week, two se two, uh, months ago. We had our first reunion. We should have done this a long time before. And we had one of the guys that was in our very first year and he was, we found him, he was in the dumps in Phnom Penh. And he was only about 17 years old, but he was eating, actually eating garbage to stay


And today he went through our pro project. Today he is a manager of a hotel in Singapore. God bless him.

Dan Ryan: No way. So, so you created this brand, you birthed this brand, Shintamani and, and as an offshoot of that, and I'm sure it's like from these experiences, like the one you just mentioned, um, you started a foundation out of this.

Bill Bensley: Yeah, it just sort of morphed into that, but not in a very formal way. But now I, I, I really want, now I'm really wanting to, to get it going, get it, getting it, get it going. So since, since Covid started, I. I've learned how to paint and I, I love painting. I adore painting. And every day I get up at six o'clock in the morning and I'm out in my studio here at the house and I'm painting.

And on the weekends I'll paint 12 hours a day. And last spring, um, I had one of my first shows at the MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, here in Bangkok. Within twenty-two hours, it was sold out. And the end. I so thankful to all the people that support us. But last, last year for the foundation via my paintings, we've made over a half a million dollars.

And so every single cent way, every single cent goes into, um, one conservation. The support of this, this private army, we've got a hundred fifty-eight people carrying AK 40 sevens 20. In order to protect this very large piece of property called the Cardamom Rainforest, and then, then the, the housing around Siem, Reap and so forth is absolutely horrible.

Some kids, some families of eight will live in a place, not, not bigger than, not any, bigger than two king-size beds with a leaky plastic roof. So we've built so far about 150 homes that they can, they're up on stilts and so forth. We've supplied something like over a thousand bicycles for kids to get to school.

We're, we are, have started a program for milk. Milk for Mothers because a lot of times the moms who are, who are many mothers under twenty-two already have five or six kids. Right. So, and they, they have to stop feeding, uh, breastfeeding at, at age three months. So that the kids start eating rice and water, and that's the, that's what they have for the rest of their life.

So there's a lot of stunting and malnutrition. So that this program that we're doing for milk, for Mothers is, is a really good one for the, the villages that we do. And of course, you know, there's the villages that we have, basically, there's no toilets, so everywhere you go I, I hope may be horrible to say.

It's open defecation. So that the groundwater mixes with sewage in almost every situation. And then you add DDT on top of that. Yes. People are still using DDT 'cause it's the cheapest thing. And then you get this cocktail that's, that's ruining the

kids' brains.

So, so that, one of the big things we've done now is we've distributed something like 5,000 water filters.

Besides building, uh, wells and so forth. 'cause when I first got there, you'd have kids would've to go 10 kilometers to pick up the enough water in order for the household to operate. Then they had no time to go to school,

Dan Ryan: So,

Bill Bensley: etc.

Dan Ryan: so all of that requires focus your time and dinero, right?

Bill Bensley: Right.

Dan Ryan: was that your first big fundraiser was selling your paintings? Or how are, how are you, what, what are, what are the way if people are listening and wanna learn more and or potentially give money, what, what's a good way to do that?

Bill Bensley: Well, the, we, we have a, a website called Chintamani Foundation, and there's certainly the, the ways in order to, um, donate money. And the good thing is we have this tax exemption for Americans. It's called 5 0


3 C,

Dan Ryan: 5 0 1 C3.

Yep. So there

Bill Bensley: Oh, C3.

Dan Ryan: so I can make a donation after we speak and then I can submit that with my taxes.

Bill Bensley: exactly.

Dan Ryan: Okay.


Bill Bensley: Is it? And, and everything. Dan, I wanna add too is that every single penny that, that you would send us goes towards something in the field. All of the administration costs a hundred percent of administration cost comes directly outta my pocket.

Mm-Hmm. Oh, so, uh, that's, that's actually really admirable because most of the times with many, uh, nonprofits, a huge percentage of that will go to ad administration. So you're actually. Funding all of that, and you're allowing all of that money to be distributed right. To the people who need it.

A hundred percent. That's the way it's always been. That's the way it always will be.

Dan Ryan: Wow.

Bill Bensley: And every single painting that I, I do, for example, I will ask the, the buyer of the painting. What would you like this money to go to? So the average painting that I do is maybe $6,000. That $6,000, Dan will buy two houses in Cambodia, or it will send two kids, two kids to school for a whole year.

So I asked my, I asked my clea, my clients, what would you like to support? They say, oh, we wanna build a house. Then I'll take a picture of that house and I'll, I'll take a picture of my, that painting that they bought. And I, I will put it on that house and then give them the geo point. And I'm gonna, I will make a, I make a, a video every single house that we've done when the family's moving in, when the big smiles, right.

And their name, their painting, etc. So everybody that makes a contribution feels like they own it. And then I've had people that come out and say, where's my house? We wanna go see my house. So we get, we get in the car and we go out and show them. Right.

So they really feel as though they're part of what, of doing something good and they are,

Dan Ryan: that's amazing. Um. We'll put links to your paintings also out there. And I know, like my wife, as much of a fan of you that I am, um, my wife is a bigger one and she's super duper excited. So I'm not gonna let her listen to this because I'm gonna buy a painting for


Bill Bensley: oh up here. So, we'll, we'll do that, we'll do that after.

Dan Ryan: Um, um, so if you were to look at the foundation a as you're bus you're working on, you said like. I for, uh, one a multiple a month. Clients are coming to you to design their hotels. You One of the things that I'm not good at, but we all get better at, I hope as we get older, 'cause time is our most valuable asset.

How do you start saying no to, to projects and shift your focus more to the Shintamani Foundation? Like how, how, how have you found that balance? Because I, I can see how much I see how much. The work you do that made you who you are, excites you and invigorates you? I'm, it's, it's coming through the internet, like all over me.

And then also the, uh, the, the, uh, on the Shintamani Foundation, just hearing you light up, it's like that's also filling you up and it's also, um, invigorating you, so how do, how are you navigating this from, from here to eternity?

Bill Bensley: I, I, I look at my work with Shintamani Foundation as my night job and my weekend job and my, my architecture and hospitality design as the day job. Um, but I am, I am definitely, um, going, spending more and more time towards Shintamani Foundation, definitely. Sure. Because. You know, I've built a lot of palaces and a lot of beautiful places, but you know what?

It's a lot more heart-filling. When I build a $3,000 home and a family of eight moves into


Dan Ryan: Wow.

Bill Bensley: it's a lot. It's a lot. It feels a lot


Dan Ryan: I can, yeah, I can. I can imagine. Um.

Bill Bensley: Every single time I go to Cambodia over the last few years. You know, it brings tears to my eyes, but, you know, two, two or three times a day, you know, be just because the, it takes so little, so little to change lives,

Dan Ryan: Yeah.

Bill Bensley: right? So very little compared to what we have, Dan down

Dan Ryan: Mm-Hmm.

Bill Bensley: really.

Dan Ryan: a hundred percent. Yeah. Like in the developing world. Dollars go so much farther and have such a, an outsized impact compared to what we're used to in the United States or North America or Europe. It's, it's really unbelievable. And, um, to be able to direct it directly to those who need it without the leaky air, so to speak, um, of all the administrative costs and really have an impact is pretty incredible.

So I'm, as I. Walk away from this. I'm just gonna, I'll think of about things like maybe we could do a, do a show or do something to bring, um, attention to the Shintamani Foundation because I think that that is really admirable. And thank you for sharing. I mean, that's


Bill Bensley: Well, you know what's really cool about is that I do you know, baker Furniture? I'm sure you do.

Baker-McGuire Furniture? Well, they approached me a few months ago and they've given me a gig to design


Okay. And, and the great thing about it is that as a, as a designer, you usually get between two and 3%.

I, I said I want 10%, but 10%, a hundred percent of that 10% goes towards the Shintamani Foundation.

Dan Ryan: Wow.

Bill Bensley: Okay. Also, I've said the same with the, uh, RH, uh, Restoration hardware. Do you know them?

Dan Ryan: Yeah.

Bill Bensley: Yeah. They've said the same thing. So that they're, that I'm gonna do a gig with them. And then also Jim Thompson, they do a lot of


and such,

so, okay. They, they do really beautiful fabrics. They, they said the same thing. They'll give us 10%, but that all goes towards the, the foundation. So that, that, I think that when those pro, when those products come out next year at a place called High Point in, in



Dan Ryan: Yep, I've heard of it.

Bill Bensley: yeah, I've never been there. But yeah, that's what they told me, that when that comes out, then we should really be able to start, uh, making an impact and, and getting some, some serious some funds together, which would

be wonderful.

Dan Ryan: Oh, that'll be awesome. I wonder if you can get some other, um. Promotion from the people that run it. Um, I, I know someone I could probably put you in touch with as well. Um, that runs that


operation down there. High point, like the, the world market, it's Vegas High Point. We'll talk about that offline.

Um, but, but that'll be, that's really incredible that you're doing all of that. Um,

and I'm glad to

Bill Bensley: That takes a lot of


Dan Ryan: yeah. Um. But it's also, you're directing, you're, you're putting your efforts to build something else that you love and that's really giving back and, and impacting lives of others. So that's really resonating with me and, um, I think we can all do a better job and allocate more time and effort to that.

And it could be to Shintamani, it could be to something that we hold near and dear. It's just being involved in our communities and giving back and, yeah. Well, thank you for sharing. I, I had no idea. Um, I wanna go back into your, your process for a second. Um, on the, on the design side, is it true that most of your drawings are still hand-drawn?

Bill Bensley: most of our drawings still look hand-drawn in that,

Dan Ryan: Okay.

Bill Bensley: right? And the every single, how to say, every single design element, it starts with hand-drawn. Idea, something that's hand-drawn and that, uh, every single person that comes into my studio is I, I won't even look at what they have in their portfolio. I will ask them to draw that Ganesha that's sitting over there next to the wall, and that's the standard.

And, and I can tell within five minutes if that person is going to work at Bensley or

not. Because it's the way they start and because no matter how good he is on the computer, if he can't use his, if he doesn't have a good hand-eye coordination, he'll never be able to, to fit into or be a really good designer, I


Dan Ryan: Well, I think a lot could be said that because it's so tactile. I love hand hand-drawn, um, notes When I'm writing things, I find if I type something, I'm not remembering, there's some kind of a

tactile, um, timestamp. It's like a timestamp to that moment of when I'm remembering and it help, it's like a mnemonic device, much in the same way that you, like, you're jumping in the water before you start a project.

You're really, you're, you're imprinting your body into that site and you're getting feedback from it, right. I do feel like, um, just being able to write things and write like all this madness, it just, it, it ties me to this moment in time. So when I look back at this, I'll remember our whole conversation, but mostly the feeling, I think that's what it is.

You're able to convey the feeling through your, through your body into whatever you're imprinting.

Bill Bensley: Right. Whenever I'm, I am teaching architecture or teaching to the kids that come through the offices, that I'll always say, you know, throw away your hand, phone, throw away, and then only take paper and pencil with you on

vacation. Because it's those things that you sketch or those things you're gonna remember.

If you take 5,000 photographs with your iPhone, you're never gonna remember anything that's on


Dan Ryan: it's interesting you say that too, because oftentimes we'll go away on a vacation and I remember doing it at your properties. We would go with, uh, like a little Strathmore. I. Um, postcard book,


Um, so there's, I don't know, 50 pages and then with, um, watercolors and we'll watercolor kind of what we're seeing.

And it really looks almost nothing like what we're looking at, but actually it does a little bit as we get better. But the, um, even though it might not be a Dr. A, a realist, IM. Capture of what, what I'm looking at. It always brings me back to that feeling. And then I can send it to people and it's like they're getting a little bit of the feeling I'm experiencing as I send it to, um, friends and family.

Bill Bensley: That's very cool. And your kids do that


Dan Ryan: Yeah. Uh, it's a little, it's, it's harder to get them to do it as they get older. Um, but we're actually, we're, we're going to Japan on Thursday and I'm going to. Repack that stuff and make them do it, because now you've inspired me to

lean into it a bit


Bill Bensley: the, you know, last weekend or right now actually is Tet in, in Vietnam and I was at Da Nang and I was doing, I did, uh, three days of, of teaching, but one of my favorite things to do is teach children how to


because that they really. I really just love watching how kids will pick up this and pick up that color and do this and, and are totally inhibited, inhibited.

Uh, and I, I find that that is so, so cool. And then I take all of their paintings and then we make one big painting out of all of their paintings. And the kids just love that stuff and I love working with 'em. 'cause I feel like all the time I feel like I'm one big kid.

Dan Ryan: That's awesome. Okay, so then what I'm gonna do is when you're in Mongolia, I'll show up with my three kids and we can have a, we'll have a painting




Bill Bensley: There you go. I

like it.

Dan Ryan: So as, as we're kind of rounding the end here, um, you mentioned Jim Thompson Silk, um. And you live in Bangkok? So I've, I've been to Bangkok a couple of times and I went to the Jim Thompson house.

What's your theory on what happened to him Because he disappeared? No one knows. There's a lot of conspiracy around it. Do you have any, uh, any ideas?

Bill Bensley: Um, you know, the, the, uh, the, yeah, I've talked to everybody about that too. In fact, also his biographer. I, I'm living in the, uh, the house where his biographer used to live, the Jim Thompsons so that, but he, he absolutely has no idea as well. Um, even though you know that, that they had intimate relationships and that in back in the sixties.

Uh, but I, I figured if I had to guess, I figured something knocked him off.

Dan Ryan: Really?

Bill Bensley: But yeah, I figured that and, and it wasn't the CIA,

but I figured

that, yeah, I think much. Something much more simple.

Yeah. I, I think it was a love triangle or something like that. That's what I

would guess.

Dan Ryan: ah, okay. Well, if anyone is ever in Bangkok, I really recommend it. I, I, oftentimes you'll go to these, uh, museums, but it's really his, it's like a traditional Thai house and it's frozen in time and it is. It is incredible. Like papers are still on the desk and, um, it's pretty incredible. Um,

Bill Bensley: Is,

Dan Ryan: as you're looking forward into all the projects that you're working on, bill and the Shintamani Foundation, what's exciting you most about the future?

Bill Bensley: um, you know, as far as, as far as, um, projects are concerned, we're doing a, a really great, uh, conservation project in the north of Congo. I. In the, in the French Congo of all places, not DRC, where it's very dangerous French is is smaller in to the West and we're doing it in a place called the Tri-National Park being Tri-National being Congo, Central African Republic, and then the French Congo.

And it's right at the confluence of confluence Of those three, of those three countries. And if you've ever seen the, the program, our World with David Attenborough, it's


BBC program, and there's one, there's one, um, episode called the Forest, and it David Attenborough helicopters into this, this opening amongst the rainforest.

The rainforest goes on for miles, and he says, this is the, the greatest wild love rainforest left on the, on the planet. And this is Belly-Buy. And I'm here, um, with the, the gorillas and the elephants and they're, they are having cocktails here at five o'clock in the afternoon. Look over there. There's twenty-seven gorillas.

Look this way. There's forty-seven elephants. That, well, that's Belly-Buy. And that actually is a place, and that is my site

where I am doing a very small four, uh, uh, four accommodations. And something like $4,000 per person per night. So it's really low impact, but high yield. And then that like Chintamani Wild Will will generate enough money for Rangering.

And that's what conservation is all about. It's about getting enough people on the ground on your side.

Dan Ryan: Hmm. And also creating a, almost an economy of having people come and appreciate what's being conserved and, and funneling money and creating a, an economy around that rather than, um, making it more beneficial to serve others and help usher in that experience than poaching.

I also, I also understand the poaching because like people are hungry and like, but there hasn't, there's, I don't know.

It's, it's a, it's a really delicate balance that needs to be continued to be pushed, and I'm glad you're on the vanguard of that. I.

Bill Bensley: You know, it, it's, it's beyond that, Dan, it's not necessarily the people are hungry. They have to, they have to, they have to eat. 'cause there's, there's enough now that malnutrition and, and, and starvation is not part of Cambodia's current picture. It's about greed and the, for example, a, a Pangolin, it's a small ant eater.

This, you know, size of a bigger, just bigger than the football that will, people in China, people in Vietnam are paying $450 for a Pangolin to eat. And so that they, and they're endangered, right? Because they figure that. It'll make their sex better or something, I don't know. But right through across the board, there's a big, there's a big market still for, for wildlife, and people want to eat that or take parts of the, the bears and so forth and, and it's all just based on stupid, uh, stupid superstitions.

But it's greed. It's not, it's not starvation, it's not need to put something in your belly. If that was the case, I would understand. Mm-hmm.

Dan Ryan: I totally agree and. I don't know how to fix that. I like, there's some almost intractable human, I guess the opposite of equality that, um, greed being one of them, one of the

Bill Bensley: Right.

Dan Ryan: Um, yeah, I don't know how to change that, but I guess you change it with one drop of water. One drop of water becomes the, um, the waterfall, right?

So you're a very big drop of


Bill Bensley: What we're doing this year, what we're starting this year is a, is a program for the villagers that live around the, live around the park, live around the cardamom rainforest, is that we're doing a, a bamboo growing program and they get seed money to take their pieces of property to build bamboo.

And then as an architect, I know very well that the cross-lamination timber is going to be the way of the future. And that. Timber and cross-lamination is actually stronger than steel, and the building industry creates one of the, is one of the greatest pollutants, creates more CO₂ than even cars and and airplanes.

So if we can replace steel by way of bamboo and the lamination of it, that, that's a big future. I'm doing a a, a super high-end ski resort in Hokkaido right now. That is all cross-leminated, timber, and it's also fireproof too, which is really cool.

Dan Ryan: Where in Hokkaido is


Bill Bensley: in Niseko between the two big


Dan Ryan: Okay. Is it outta the ground?

Bill Bensley: Uh, no, it's not out of the ground. It's still almost through planting. It's a, it's called a su it'll be a Sukurtai


Dan Ryan: Oh, cool. I'm gonna be there week. Skiing.


Bill Bensley: Oh, oh, you are? Okay. it's not out of the ground yet.

I'd like


Dan Ryan: Well, I, it's really exciting the timber, the, the timber skyscrapers that they're just mess messing around with. And, um, yeah, as a carbon capture and not a a, and just a strength perspective and from a renewable perspective, it's really exciting.

The technology something so old of timber building is happening. So it's it. Good luck with that one. I'll have to keep my eyes on that.

Bill Bensley: So to keep the, to keep the, the Cambodians out of forest and busy. That we're giving them seed money to grow bamboo, which, so then they'll, that'll be their cash crops

and then that, then we'll be able to turn that back into, uh, uh, laminated timber and then that then we'll be using to build houses and see 'em rip in all the poorest places



Dan Ryan: have to do. We'll have to do like an, uh, an in-person on, uh, all the Shintamani projects in Cambodia, in the FU at some point in the future. So I'd love to hear more about that. Um, bill, uh, last question. So growing. You grew up in Anaheim, you went to school in Boston. You chose the path of architecture, correct? If the bill I'm talking to now magically appeared in front of student Bill, what advice do you have for yourself

Bill Bensley: What advice go to Thailand?

Dan Ryan: Fat sooner?

Bill Bensley: Uh, well actually I went on the day, on my graduation day. I went the next

day, so


Dan Ryan: followed your


live, you're living your dream.

Bill Bensley: yeah. I'm living my dream. Yeah. What, what else would I. I told myself I wouldn't have lived. Yeah, I wouldn't have changed. If I went to back, it wouldn't change very much. No.

Dan Ryan: Hmm.


Bill Bensley: Yeah.

Dan Ryan: well.

Bill Bensley: I, got here and, and within five days I met my partner

Dan Ryan: Wow.

Bill Bensley: and, and, he is, you know, the best thing that ever happened to me.

And, and we get along like a house on fire thirty-five years later.

Dan Ryan: Wow. Burning down the house from Bangkok.

Bill Bensley: Oh,

Dan Ryan: pouring down and I have to go, uh, fire up the old snow blower to get the driveway open. Um. But this has been wonderful and I, I bill seriously, um, I'm a huge fan. Like, whether you realize it or not, you've impacted some really incredible memories with, uh, me, my wife, my kids that will just always are just indelible.

Um, so you've, and you've impacted so many others, countless in, in really meaningful ways. Um, so I just wanna thank you for your time and just getting to know you. And hopefully it's the beginning of a, of a nice, long relationship. Um, if people wanted to learn more about you or the Shintamani Foundation or Bensley Studios, what's, what's the best way for them to do that?

Bill Bensley: Um, you know, uh, to learn more about the, my studio is, is look up Bensley.com. I mean, that's the easiest thing. And Shintamani Foundation and, and my, the, the hotels are all, if you just Google Shintamani, it all comes


Dan Ryan: Perfect. Uh, and we'll put all that in the show notes. I'll also put links to the, the books in the show notes. And this has been really wonderful, bill. I know how busy you are and I know the time difference. So thank you for putting yourself out there to all of our listeners and, um, and impacting me in another positive way.

So thank you.

Bill Bensley: You are more than welcome. Thank you.

Dan Ryan: Thanks everyone for listening. Uh, without you, I wouldn't be here talking to these incredible people. Um, so thank you. Thank you, thank you. Uh, please pass it along if this helped you think a little bit differently about hospitality. Thank you.

Understanding To The Nth Degree - Bill Bensley - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 143
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