Driving purpose and changing American politics are the major passion topics of renowned architect and landscape designer, Bill Bensley. Chatting with David from his studio in Bangkok, Bill talks about his greatest desire for hospitality—namely that every hotel built from this moment forward have a purpose, or at least one small detail that’s sustainable. He also discusses, among other things, his vision of a post-Trump presidential trifecta involving Al Gore, Bill Gates and Jane Goodall.
Bill’s lifelong purpose focuses on conservation. In his latest project in China’s Guangdong province, the ‘human zoo’, he’s hoping to educate a whole generation of Chinese children that wildlife must stay in the wild and not end up on dinner plates. He believes that if we, as a species, continue to ignore the interconnectivity between man and nature, then ‘we’re done’.
David Keen 0:10
Hi, this is David Keen. At QUO, we’ve worked for the last 20 years with many of the world’s best-known travel brands. During this unprecedented global crisis, our world of travel has changed, possibly irreversibly. This series will see us speak with many global leaders to understand how they see the future of travel.
Bill Bensley—friend, most of all; ally in a lot of what we do over the years; and leading thinker. Welcome to The Future of Travel, Bill.
Bill Bensley 1:00
Thank you very much.
David Keen 1:02
What’s a trifecta?
Bill Bensley 1:05
I’m not sure. I was gonna ask you, you’re a lot smarter than I am. I don’t really know anything about much so…
David Keen 1:12
But you were saying that you want to create a trifecta in American politics. What does that mean?
Bill Bensley 1:17
I think it’s three people that work together. So few people work together in American politics, they fight each other all the time. I would love to see three people who I admire a great deal take the presidency as equal partners, perhaps a trifecta—I don’t know if that’s the right word or not.
David Keen 1:37
A trifecta of..
Bill Bensley 1:39
I thought it was something like three three pictures that you put up on the wall.
David Keen 1:47
A trio. A trinity.
Bill Bensley 1:49
A trinity, that’s it! Let me tell you about my Trinity. This is going to lead the States out of their miserable current existence. And that would be… I would put Al Gore back in the hot seat, as one equal seat because he very much has been driving and he understands the environment of the world better than any American politician that I know. And you?
David Keen 2:24
Yeah, I think Al Gore is the only politician, perhaps apart from Mary Robinson, who is the president of… who, in the last 20 years, and that’s… I mean, it’s actually completely mad—who’s actually taken the environment and made it a major cause, of course, apart from our friends in Bhutan.
Bill Bensley 2:45
David Keen 2:47
We did a book, which you’ve probably seen, we did a book in the late 90s called The Middle Path, which was the National Environment Commissioner at the time. They’re the most forward-thinking, engagement, integration of the environment, what is a spiritual practice—some politics, sure—of how Bhutan would go forward in the world. Even today, there’s still so few examples of that. It’s so sad.
Bill Bensley 3:24
Wonderful, wonderful examples. I understand that Bhutan is the only country on the planet that has a growing forest…that has a forest that grows—I know grows every day but—growing area-wise.
David Keen 3:42
I know that’s true. His Majesty the Fourth King who was the… again I mean, in the same vein as perhaps Al Gore, was a proponent of growing the natural environment, of growing the forest, and of environmentalism, at the core of the economy… at the core of gross national happiness. Proves to us, proves to me, and I’m sure to yourself and we can go back to our Trinity that if you don’t have leadership that cares, we have no future.
Bill Bensley 4:31
Very true. That’s very true.
David Keen 4:35
And then integrating, you know, we were touching on things like democracy and the way people… political systems and economists and the way that it all kind of comes together. If you don’t have altruistic leadership, people that really care about whether it’s their own society, their own culture, their own environment… it’s a desperate future. If you go to the American example, which, we’d started talking about, it’s terrifying.
Bill Bensley 5:10
It’s absolutely terrifying. I’m going to let you in on a secret, David, I’ve never voted since I voted for McGovern, when I was back in college.
I’m registering to vote, just so that I can vote against Trump. I don’t mind, but I have my own idea of who the Trinity is going to be. Who should really be running that country? Because no matter how great an economy is, if the environment… if we don’t have a planet in which to operate an economy, what’s the point? If our grandchildren don’t have a planet…
David Keen 5:55
To that point, what is the measurement of the economy? Who measures? Just because you’ve got a lot of money in the bank, just because the stock market is at the highest rate it’s ever been…
Bill Bensley 6:06
Just because you’ve printed a whole bunch more trillion dollars…
David Keen 6:09
Right? I mean, we talked about spirituality and again, going back to the botany is kind of going back to the business context, where there’s no imposition of Buddhism. There’s no imposition of spirituality, yet it governs their reality.
Bill Bensley 6:27
I love the title of that book being called The Middle Road, right?
David Keen 6:32
The Middle Path
Bill Bensley 6:33
The Middle Path. That says very much, The Buddhist principle is the middle path. We never do anything too much and anything too little, but it also applies to how we live on the earth and how we live within the environment. When we take the middle path we only take from the earth what we absolutely need. And that’s why we’re so buggered up on the earth is because of greed… we take. We’ve gone past the middle path. We’ve gone way past what we should be reaping from the earth every single day.
David Keen 7:08
Yeah, it really does make sense. I mean, I don’t want to… we were in such a good mood, we had such a delicious lunch.
Bill Bensley 7:15
sorry about that. And we got some ice cream coming.
David Keen 7:19
Yeah. I want us, we’re… We collectively have been working in Asia and around the world for 50—60 years between us. And we have what we can to give back. We understand what societies… to a point, they need. But are they all going the wrong way?
Bill Bensley 7:45
Are all the societies in Asia?
David Keen 7:48
in Asia or America?
Bill Bensley 7:56
For me, every society, every Religion in that fact… every group of people have something very valid to say. And in every religion there is something very valid. If you listen carefully to everybody, then I think you can learn a lot. But I would agree with you, I think you’re leading me down this path. I would agree with you that most societies as a whole, in most countries, we don’t have our priorities in the right place.
David Keen 8:38
Right. And then, we were saying before, whether we talk about—in our industry, in tourism or in hospitality—whether we talk about purpose and all of that. I have a theory and it’s something that actually stems from… It stems from work that I’ve done in Sri Lanka and my son also did in Sri Lanka where we’re working in private and public private partnerships… in PPPs where it’s a private enterprise… mostly not exclusively, but mostly… driving thought. Driving what becomes government thought.
And, and I’m in conversation now about hopefully, another assignment or… not peace work on this level. I believe and I know what you think… but I believe that if private enterprise doesn’t start to drive opinion, such as what you’ve done in Cambodia where you’ve done everything you possibly can to try and bring public opinion into three… through a private enterprise into what’s needed. If private enterprise doesn’t do it, we’ll just continue to go down the wrong path.
Bill Bensley 10:03
I totally agree. I think that and I try to appeal to as many of the big hotel companies as I possibly can in order to make it a trendy thing to bring a purpose to every single hotel it’s built from now on. A trendy thing for hotel companies to actually look at least something that’s sustainable. At least some little thing, some tiny corner. Because in the past they haven’t, for the most part. There’s the exceptions, but for the most part as you and I were both in the hospitality business big time, what percentage in your mind of our clients actually,—up until last year—actually gave a shit? Can I see shit on this?
No, go say it again.
Bill Bensley 11:05
That give a damn about… For the most part, most hoteliers don’t care and they’re just in it for the money. That’s it. Period. Full stop.
David Keen 11:25
I’ve had this conversation with you before and I’ve had this conversation before: Is that sustainable?
Bill Bensley 11:35
Hell no, absolutely not.
David Keen 11:37
Why don’t they listen to the Bhutanese?
Bill Bensley 11:42
That’s a very good point. That’s a great example. Well for one, the Bhutanese don’t want everyone going there and they shouldn’t want everyone going there. They’re perfectly happy where they are and the more that they are influenced by the outside world, the less happy they will be.
David Keen 12:02
Right, but it’s not sustainable to not have… I’m involved in a conversation this evening with some friends in Europe in the Middle East, where we’re talking about creating a platform where we can drive progress. There has been… and I’ll say this with you and whoever listens. There has been hardly any evolution of thinking of purpose, of real meaning, in the hotel industry for many, many years. It’s still stagnant.
Bill Bensley 12:45
Completely stagnant. I couldn’t agree with you more David.
David Keen 12:51
And processes, simple processes, a check-in process, the way the rooms are cleaned, the way it’s built, the way it’s designed, is all too one-dimensional… just looking for money. I mean, it’s economic structures where the triangle tries to be profitable. I’m all in favor of profit.
Bill Bensley 13:16
I am too, totally.
David Keen 13:21
But the opportunity of driving fulfillment, even for your staff… real fulfillment, real meaning for your staff or for the architecture. It’s just not there. And you’re depressed?
Bill Bensley 13:43
Am I depressed? I’m never depressed. I’m not the depressed type.
David Keen 13:47
But do you think we can… do you think it’s too steep of a battle to try and change that?
Bill Bensley 13:53
No, I don’t I think that… you know, I’ve still got at least another 50 years of doing this at least. I’m planning on kicking off at 111.
David Keen 14:07
Or starting up at 100.
Bill Bensley 14:09
By that time I might learn something. I’m gonna keep on kicking this bucket down the road. And I hope that I will gain momentum and the number of people that we influence. I have a project that’s in China… the human zoo, and this is so cool. I’ve been working on it all morning before you came. This has the potential of influencing in a big way. 10 million young Chinese per year. I mean that that really makes me happy.
David Keen 14:55
How will you influence them and what is your purpose? What is the…not purpose, excuse me. What is the journey?
Bill Bensley 15:05
The purpose is the correct answer, in that it’s very… My purpose is very selfish. You know, I own Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia. That’s under threat all the time for bushmeat and that bushmeat ends up on the tables of the Vietnamese and the Chinese. And it’s selfish in a way. But I don’t want to have… I want to have at least my part of the Southern National Forest. I want the animals in it—more than anything else than I want in the entire world—to come back in the numbers that they once were. And we can’t do that…
David Keen 15:57
Even more than Trump getting out of office?
Bill Bensley 16:04
Oh you got me there, okay. We’re calling back to the Trinity!
Yeah, even more so than that. Because it will change the way people think. And how are we going to do that? It’s not just by the 2400 hotel rooms that are built around the periphery. But we have a train that actually stops at seven different places. And I’m working on this all the time. This train that stops is going to present various issues of… zoonotic diseases is one of the issues… but it’s gonna be done in a way that is not like a museum, but it’s like a Broadway musical.
So that kids—and you know now there’s this explosion in China, now that one-kid rule stopped, what, seven years ago—so by the time we’re open five years from now, there’ll be a whole lot of two-kid families. And they’ll all be wanting to travel. If we can present in a very impactful way… because now kids, just to get them off their cell phones, you know, to get them to focus on something, it’s got to be sharp, it’s got to be theatrical, and it has to be pointed. And like Simon Sinek says, it has to be repeated one after another. That same message about… wildlife should not be on the dinner table.
David Keen 17:45
It’s all our responsibility, as we see this. That’s why I’m having this conversation this evening. I’m getting to a point now where I’m actually obsessed with education. With getting to a point where, I mean, we talk about America and don’t really joke… My challenge in the US, to a point in Europe as well, and pretty much globally, is the challenge of education and the disparity of private-public education and all of that stuff.
But just if we talk about the tourism, hotel industry, we have a responsibility: one, to educate… what we’re doing impacts. Whether it’s wild animals, whether it’s animals, whether it’s the animal kingdom, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s whatever. But even deeper than that, it impacts people’s lives. It impacts what they do every day. And if they continue to have meaningless experiences, meaningless professional experiences, because there’s no purpose, what do we end up with? I love this idea of the human zoo.
Bill Bensley 19:11
We end up with empty hearts. We end up with a life that has no meaning. We go from point A to point B and we pay our credit cards and we think we enjoy ourselves but without the purpose and meaning then…
David Keen 19:34
We have a responsibility as thinkers in this business, to educate also the other visionaries and drivers of change. Because you can’t just pay lip service.
Bill Bensley 19:49
You can’t. You’ve got to do it yourself. You know, this light right here? It’s powered by the solar power on the roof. Everything here is powered by the solar power on the roof.
David Keen 20:01
Oh good for you!
Bill Bensley 20:03
Perhaps the only design firm in Bangkok that is all solar powered. It’s not just lip service.
David Keen 20:12
Bill, thank you. I mean, we could go on but our listeners…
Bill Bensley 20:17
Well, I haven’t told you about the rest of the trifecta, the Trinity, okay. And the second person after Al Gore would be Bill Gates, right of course because..
David Keen 20:31
He predicted all this
Bill Bensley 20:33
He predicted all this. But I choose him because he does his homework. Unlike Trump, he really does his homework. He sits and he reads 20 books a week. And if there is another problem within the States or something, he’s the guy that I figure is going to figure everything out. He already knows so much about infectious diseases across the world..
David Keen 21:01
And knowledge is king
Bill Bensley 21:02
Knowledge is king, absolutely. And number three, you might giggle, but it is my hero. My hero is the 88-year-old Jane Goodall. Because… it’s not just because she’s the chimp lady, but because she’s grown from age 21, when she was out in Kenya. She was out in Kenya with Leakey. She’s grown so much to be, and she understands, perhaps more than anyone else in the world that I know of, a global understanding of what the world needs in order to survive on it as a herd. As we talked about today.
David Keen 21:50
Right? So what is that? Can you go deeper in that? I think I understand what you mean, but just the interconnectivity…
Bill Bensley 22:01
That’s the key: the interconnectivity. It’s the interconnectivity between us and nature. And she is the person that, in my estimate, understands that more so than anyone else. And if we, as a herd continue to ignore that connectivity, we’re done. Thanks, David. It’s been great to talk to you.
David Keen 22:28
Thank you so much. We should do this again. Talk to you soon.