Why Bill Bensley is better than Walt Disney

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What Bill Bensley taught me about storytelling.

I’m never going to a hotel that isn’t designed by Bill Bensley.

I’ve always loved experiences; I’m someone who craves the story, the journey and for everything I do, I want to have a purpose. I adore themed events. It’s no surprise that my first job was at Disney World Florida.

girl sitting in blue dress sitting on sofa

But when your first job is at Disney World, most other experiences after that never quite match up. You become the one that notices the member of staff who doesn’t seem to be playing ball, the inconsistencies, areas that perhaps weren’t themed as well. You pick up small things that others may not notice, which means you are often disappointed. Disappointment has pretty much become a norm in my life because nothing has ever really matched up to that experience I had at Disney. I was just resigned to the fact that no one did storytelling as well as Disney.

Until that was I began to learn about Bill Bensley. Bensley designs hotels, but not ordinary hotels, hotels that challenge what hotels should be, have a purpose and do something good. He is the most incredibly visionary man who has a point of view in the world which often takes my breath away.

girl standing in lobby with hat over head

So consequently, when Bronte got invited to JW Marriott Emerald Bay, a Bill Bensley-designed hotel, I was beside myself and begged her to take me with her.

Of course she did and we are back now, amid a slightly challenging time with the global pandemic, however, I feel the need to write about this incredible hotel because honestly, I’m not sure I can put into words how much I fell in love with not only the hotel but the people and the story the hotel tells and why I think Bill Bensley might be even better at storytelling that Walt Disney himself.

One look at the hotel will show you how beautiful it is, how incredible the location is and how it is noted for its amazing food, but what you can’t see in the picture are the details, the nuances, the enthusiastic,  impeccably trained staff and the storytelling that oozes out of every nook and cranny of this hotel.

girl in red dress in white room

It starts as soon as you step off the plane and arrive at Phu Quoc. Met by a man in what looked like an old-fashioned golfers uniform, we were ushered to a van where we were given cold water in glass bottles and small gifts of dried ginger and soya beans; after 24 hours traveling it was a welcome relief.

You arrive at the hotel and are met by staff that welcome you to Lamark University, sit you down, whisk your bags away, give you another cold drink and check you in. You are then given your room key (we were in the Turquoise suite in the Department of Architecture) your student guide, a list of events you can take part in around the hotel created like a curriculum and a welcome drinks invitation to the Dean’s cocktail party.

Then you are put onto a buggy and shown the sites of campus, the chemistry Department bar, the Pink Pearl restaurant where Madam Pearl would hold secret sorority meetings and Lover’s Lane, a place that if you walk down with your lover, legend says you will be together forever. I’m sure there were lots of other things we were shown but by this time we were exhausted.

girl standing in pink restaurant

We did think this might just have been for Bronte’s benefit as an influencer but no, it happens for every guest and I can attest, we did see some more guests being treated exactly the same as we were on arrival.

On entering the room we both did a bit of a happy dance because honestly, the design is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and the bed was one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in. But look beyond the beauty and it was the details, the architectural pictures on the wall, the details on the carpet, every single detail in line with the theme, even the lift.

girl in red dress putting shoe on next to blue wardrobe

And that detail runs through everything, everywhere from the door handles resembling rulers in the Department of Architecture to the old English books imported to the library, the trophies that the hotel have won on display alongside those won by university students, the spa that was used in the university to study mushrooms now having an Alice in Wonderland theme, even the benches have carved mushrooms on. Honestly, the details are astounding.

But what really brings the story to life is the staff, who are all versed in the story of the hotel, will talk about secret rooms where females only sororities were run, the university’s athletic team and their achievements and the student classes which include teaching you about marine life and the reef they are protecting. I have never in my life seen staff so enrolled in a story and so aware of the part they play it.

girl standing in hallway, its decorated with chemistry symbols

Bill Bensley created the idea and story, JW Marriott was brave enough to let him run with it, the building makes the most amazing backdrop but the staff are the ones who bring this story to life, not just in the costumes they wear but in how they deliver their part of the story at all times.

It was phenomenal to see and I did find myself wondering if the story they were telling was true or based on some truth, but it isn’t; it’s fictional.

And one thing I know now is that I never want to go to a hotel that doesn’t have a story and isn’t designed by Bill Bensley.

girl in red two piece sitting in blue and pink bar

But what I loved most about the hotel is the little things it does, the water it gives you in glass bottles, the way it works with locals to look after the reef, the way all the staff smile of you, the fact when you come off the beach you can wash your feet in the water in large bowls.  And the way they are working to get plastic out of their rooms but not making it a big thing. Not greenwashing, just doing what they can, and often working hard to find alternatives. Oh, and the way the manager looks after the cats, working himself to get a vet to the island to neuter the cats he has on-site.

I’ve never before felt so much a part of something, so much like the staff cared about me and so much like I had stepped into a Disney universe, only better.

This hotel is really something unique and a place I want to return to again and again. I can’t recommend a visit enough.

This hotel taught me that storytelling isn’t just about telling a story, it’s about living a story, it’s about focusing on the details and it’s about for just that moment making someone question reality and fiction.

Bill Bensley you are a genius.