It’s easy to believe that Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent was minted to play the part of the world’s leading luxury tour operator. Born while his parents were on safari and raised in Kenya, he set off at 16 to become the first person to travel the 5,000 miles between Kenya and Cape Town by motorcycle. He later grew A&K, the company that he co-founded with his parents in 1962, from a safari company to the leading tour operator for high end adventures, taking the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Sting on memorable trips. Kent is a former British Army officer, a world class polo player and pal of Prince Charles – not to mention a brilliant marketer. There is no Mr. Abercrombie, but it got him in the “A” in alphabetical rankings, while also referencing Abercrombie & Fitch, the venerable 19th century American travel outfitter (not the teen clothier). I met Geoffrey Kent a few month ago in New York City, in a penthouse at the Essex House hotel, where the views of a snowy Central Park inspired him to talk about his new found passion for skiing.
Geoffrey, what were the beginnings of A&K?
My family lived on a farm in the Aberdare Highlands of Kenya and growing up there, my whole life was a safari. In fact I was born while my parents, Colonel John and Valerie Kent, were on safari in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). I basically lived in the bush until I was 16. We had always organized safaris for friends and it grew into a business when we lost our farm on Kenya’s self-governance in 1962.
What was your background – what did you bring to the table in terms of expertise?
At 16 I fell out with my father and impulsively left on a two-month trek by motorbike, driving the 5,000 often-treacherous miles between Nairobi and Cape Town. When I returned, he packed me off to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. I became a cavalry officer in the British Army and served in such far-flung places as Aden, South Yemen and Malta. It is the British Army’s training in organization and logistics that has made Abercrombie & Kent a success.
Adventure by day, comfort by night. We earned that reputation by being the first to introduce refrigeration to our safaris. Prior to that, all safaris were hunting safaris to provide food for the guests. With help from a engineer I knew from the military, I designed a refrigerated truck which made it possible to keep food fresh for a week…and have ice for the gin and tonic and chilled champagne. Our slogan when we launched these first luxury photographic tent safaris was “shoot with the camera, not with the gun”.
How about your travelers – who are they, what are they like, how experienced are they in roaming the world?
Our guests are educated, active, accomplished professionals and entrepreneurs with an intense curiosity about the world. They have widely travelled, but have limited time and want someone else to handle all the details.
While many people who travel are thrilled to simply be in a foreign country, our guests seek a deeper knowledge and appreciation, an experience of a more profound nature that expands their understanding of the world. They want to travel with intelligent, like-minded people who share a passion for meaningful travel and with highly-experienced and cultured A&K guides, who share their insights into the countries they are visiting. We call it A&K insider access … “experiences you cannot Google”.
At that New York meeting, you also mentioned the idea that for many people, travel is non-negotiable. Could you expand on that.
Everyone is thinking about life in a much more careful way now, but our clients will cut back in other areas before postponing their vacations. They work hard and need to get away to recharge and reconnect. Travel is often the most uninterrupted time they spend together as a family, particularly when both partners work.
How is adventure travel changing, in an increasingly frenetic world dealing with recession worries and lack of free time?
Time has become the ultimate luxury. Our clients are making more frequent trips but of shorter duration. Next year we are offering 67 different small group escorted journeys that are 10 days or less. Experiences like gorilla trekking in Uganda which were once added to a 10-day safari are now in many cases a standalone trip.
Americans are drawn to the ancient countries of the Middle East, rich in Biblical archeology and described in both the old and new testaments. More Americans will visit Egypt this year than ever before (350,000 according to Egyptian Tourism). Requests for Israel, Syria and Lebanon are setting records, inspired by books and television programs like “Walking the Bible.”
Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Here one can easily imagine what life was like in the Middle Ages by walking through the souks of old Damascus and Aleppo, dating back to the second millennium BS when this was the end of the Silk Road which linked central Asia and Mesopotamia.
Our clients are also fascinated by traditional cultures like the Tuareg, the nomadic desert dwellers found in Mali, a country rarely visited by Westerners. Its proud people — including the Dogon, Bozo and Fulani tribes — have maintained their beliefs and traditions in the face of the modern world.
Those returning to China for a second or third time often want to explore remote regions like Diqing, in far southwestern Yunnan, which inspired the legend of Shangri-la. To the south lies Burma, and to the west, Tibet. The appeal of this region is its breathtaking Himalayan scenery and authentic Tibetan culture.
What places remain on your personal travel wish list?
My current favorite is Zambia. If you’ve only seen animals from a vehicle, walking with big game is a thrilling experience. I love places where you can be active, like the Galapagos … hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, even scuba diving. I prefer tented camps where you can hear the sounds of the night like Sanctuary Zambezi Kulefu Camp. Built on a bend in the river, it overlooks an open channel filled with hippos. Elephants often cross right in front of the camp to reach a small island.
When you’re not working, where do you find your center of gravity?
I am always working. However, I do like to ski at Christmas and when skiing you certainly require a center of gravity!
Visit Abercrombie & Kent for details on 2011 trips.