Magic of stories

Weaving stories into hotel design has allowed American architect, and interior designer, Bill Bensley, to present a unique stay experience for guests that also conveys the history of the place and people

I love your story behind the making of the new InterContinental Khao Yai Resort – of train conductor Somsak, whose many train voyages are woven into the spirit of the entire hotel. Do you always take this storytelling approach with the hotels you design?
We absolutely do! It is one of the keys to our success, and what keeps clients coming back to our studio, and guests back to our hotels.

You see, over the years I have learnt that designing a hotel is akin to producing a Hollywood movie, in that both hotels and movies need a
compelling storyline. For a wonderful premiere, we come up with a unique DNA that influences everything, from the architecture to the design of the teaspoons – and that is the key to success as resort craftsmen!

The same goes for the InterContinental Khao Yai.

What inspires the type of stories you adopt for the hotels you design? Take for instance, Capella Hanoi, also a rather new property that had opened just last year.
One does not need to look far for a story. If you have a good site and are able to honour the place’s history, you cannot go astray.

At the Capella Hanoi, we were gifted with a darling little footprint at the heart of the old French quarter. As we were just steps away from the Hanoi Opera House, it seemed obvious to take inspiration from there and think of what this little “auberge” might have been like in her glory days. We were soon daydreaming of opera singers, artists, composers, stage and costume designers, and ran with that. We researched, collected antiques and books, and eventually named all the rooms after different characters (famed artists of that era), such as Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Leon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev and, of course, the Ballets Russes (a French ballet that performed between 1909 and 1929).

Emerging from the travel freeze, more destinations have declared their desire to pursue only high-value travellers instead of mass travellers. Do you think that taking a storytelling approach can enable hotels, attractions, and other elements of destination experiences to support the destination’s wider goal of acquiring high-value travellers?
I couldn’t agree more, as mass tourism is rarely beneficial to all and ravages the environment – which is what draws people to visit in the first place. Tourism shouldn’t just be all about big numbers.

Storytelling can certainly help to attract the right people – a spoonful of sugar, as they say! In our hotel design, I use storytelling not only to attract people, but also to educate visitors and locals on the history of the place.

At the Capella Ubud, we imagined the tale of shipwrecked Dutch settlers in Bali in the 19th century, and through that told the story of incredible characters such as Mads Lange, nicknamed the White Rajah of Bali. I will let you find out that story for yourself!

Dilapidated train cars are being converted into luxurious suites

Let’s go back to InterContinental Khao Yai Resort. For this property, you brought in 16 heritage train cars and had them repurposed into luxury suites. Will you take us through the upcycling work needed to give these cars a new lease on life? What was the hardest task, for instance?
Well, to begin with it was a real scavenger hunt finding them. We sourced all over Thailand, discovering them in old train lots, or forgotten in fields for some 50 years with Ficus trees taking root and enveloping the carriages. Those had to be pried off to get the trains out of the field. I have kept the root system of these and we will return them to Mother Earth, literally, on site.

Then, you can imagine there’s a fair bit of restoration to do while we designed a luxury hotel room in a cabin 2.9m wide! We played on the length, doubling up carriages, and adding on decks and pools for outdoor living. Everything is custom made to fit these very precise dimensions.

A tricky design exercise, but also an incredibly fun one, don’t you think?

Is the rest of InterContinental Khao YaI Resort new-build? Are there upcycling opportunities in this other part of the hotel?
Yes, but it is made to look like it has been there all along. The 100-acre (40.5ha) site is rich in wildlife, with gorgeous trees, so we designed buildings of charming Thai colonial ilk, with a small footprint so that they (the buildings) can be placed strategically between wooded areas to avoid damaging natural drainage patterns. There are more than 50,000 trees and seven lakes on this site.

These guestrooms are designed to look like train carriages as well, down to the antique accessorising, signage and art. That is the key to telling a good story: doing it down to the finest details. The same goes for the public areas.

Did you bring your love for upcycling into other hotels that you have designed and developed?
Oh yes! The first project where we went wild with upcycling was Lamarck University, also known as the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa. I wrote an elaborate script for this resort that included a history of each and every building, when it was built and for what purpose.

We told the tale of Lamarck, who laid the groundwork for Darwin, and the university he once founded there. The buildings were of a variety of scales, making up 11 departments such as the Department of Physical Education (spa and gym), the Department of Chemistry (a beach bar) or the Department of Architecture (all-day dining). Guests, when checked in, would be marked “present” at one of 16 different departments: Botany, Astronomy, Zoology, Ichthyology, Entomology, Oceanography, etc.

The hallways of each department display original etchings of natural studies dating back as far as 1760, period teaching information, and school charts specific to the department.

For two years we collected some 3,000-plus antiques and vintage pieces to give the university authenticity. From a 19th century elevator to 48 original French car designer drawings of the ill-fated six-wheel car that dated back to 1910, the university grounds hold a plethora of fascinating stories. I have never had more fun putting together a beach resort!

From then on, I vowed that intense upcycling and a strong narrative would always be woven into my designs, because guests love it.

There are still months before InterContinental Khao Yai Resort is done and ready for first guests. Are you already looking for your next fun project? What would it be, if you had your way?
Just a couple of weeks ago I had my first ever public art show, and to my surprise, it seems to be doing rather well! So, my next fun project is very much dreaming up the next few exhibitions I have generously offered to do.

The world of hotels is definitely waking up from the long Covid night. Just yesterday I had the most offers for new projects in a day since this all started. If I have my way, we’ll be in Turkey, Congo, South Africa or India – wherever a good story is.

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