This year, the celebrated luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In April, A&K's peripatetic Founder and CEO, Geoffrey Kent, was inducted into the prestigious British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Kent, who is 69 years old, maintains a hectic travel schedule, personally checking out locations and designing new and unusual trips for his company, as he has throughout its history. He is one of the original buccaneers of the travel industry and he shows no signs of slowing down.
He spoke recently about his early struggles to start the company in Africa, how he expanded its worldwide reach to become a leading luxury tour operator today and what the future holds for A&K in particular -- and the rapidly-expanding travel industry in general.
Jim Calio: Who is the "Abercrombie" in Abercrombie & Kent?
Geoffrey Kent: There is no Abercrombie. I made it up so the company would appear higher in the phone book.
JC: Did you expect to be inducted into British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame?
GK It came as a complete surprise, almost impossible for me to comprehend. To be recognized by your peers is, I think, the ultimate accolade. I thought back to how my parents and I started running safaris in Kenya in 1952 with an old Bedford truck and my mother's sterling silver ice bucket. Today, we are the world's largest luxury and adventure travel company with 50 offices on six continents and more than 2,200 employees.
JC: What were your goals when you started out in Africa?
GK I made a decision early on that our safaris would be about appreciating the wildlife and the scenery in the most luxurious way possible and came up with the slogan "shoot with a camera, not a gun" and we stuck with that. Early on I got an old army buddy of mine, who was a brilliant engineer, to develop a refrigerated truck so we could have ice in the bush for the gin and tonic. It was the first time this had been done and it worked brilliantly.
JC: What was the first trip you organized when you started the company?
GK: One of my first trips ever was with Jane Chapin from Adventures Unlimited. She had somehow heard of me and, when she came to Nairobi, I took her on a safari. I picked up Jane at the old Stanley Hotel and took her into Nairobi National Park. Then, in 1966, I took her off on a longer adventure. I was the guide, and we had a mobile tented camp -- with ice and electric lights. She had such a wonderful time that soon she and I were operating 10 safaris a month.
JC: Was there ever a time when you thought you might fail?
GK: No. I am incredibly competitive in whatever I do. It probably goes back to my days at the [Royal Military Academy] Sandhurst and in the British army. I always had the ambition to be the best along with the will to succeed. I never accept defeat. I just try again and again. And I'm just passionate about the travel business. I started out as a guide and driver in Nairobi. Then I thought I should be organizing safaris. Later I started distributing these trips and expanding into other parts of the world.
JC: What are the major changes or big trends that you have seen in travel in your lifetime?
GK: It's been the impact of the Internet, which has inspired more people to travel, including families. Since 9/11, our clients have reaffirmed their priorities, focusing on family and friends. When both parents work, traveling on holiday is often the most uninterrupted time they spend together as a family. And, after 9/11, they didn't want to leave their kids at home. So, rather than taking two or three holidays a year, with and without the children, they are now opting for multigenerational trips, often to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary.
JC: How has the worldwide recession of the last few years impacted A&K?
GK: Some time ago, I made the important decision to expand our services worldwide and not put all of our eggs in one basket. We have built our presence in more than 100 different countries on all seven continents so, if there is a downturn in one part of the world, we can concentrate on other regions.
Another key decision was to have people on the ground with great local contacts. This has proved to be the correct decision time and time again, for everything from sourcing unique experiences for our guests, to making sure people have someone by their side when something unexpected happens -- whether it's a volcano in Iceland, an earthquake in Chile or the Arab Spring uprisings.
JC: What do you see as the major upcoming trends for the industry as a whole?
GK: I think that companies have to remember that what was a bespoke, luxury experience for people three years ago is now run of the mill for a lot of travelers. I noticed some time ago that many of today's most sophisticated travelers routinely travel by private jet or first-class for business. They do not have time to research and plan their personal holidays. They want someone else to take responsibility for their trips and to deliver the "wow" factor, which is what we do. I developed the first "experiential" holiday, which was a safari, and we have taken that experience and developed it all over the world, from China to Antarctica, building that particular sector of the travel industry. When I was building it, very few people wanted what I was trying to sell. Now everybody wants luxury adventure travel.
JC: What new A&K products have you introduced recently?
GK: We always want to be on the cutting edge, so I am committed to making one major expedition each year. This year it will be searching for "bonobos," also known as pygmy chimpanzees, in the south central Congo. We'll be using a helicopter to scope out landing places, build air strips and fly bush planes. We are also developing a very high-end Concierge Division, which will service our top clients, especially in the major cities around the world.
JC: What are the emerging markets for travel and where is A&K looking to expand in the next few years?
Today, we are expanding into the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China. A growing number of people want to experience our type of travel, but their expectations are very different. Brazilians are actually quite similar to Americans. They love adventure and want elegance and style. They like to travel in big family groups, so villas are perfect for them. Russians like our product but demand high-end concierge services, such as private store openings. Indians are very keen to experience all that the European capitals have to offer. The Chinese market is more of a challenge as they expect Mandarin-speaking guides and a product that is completely customized for them, including authentic Chinese food.
JC: What do American clients want?
Americans want to learn, so having the right guide is essential. Our guides have an intimate knowledge of local flora and fauna, history, geography and culture. They are professionals whose education, field research and personal accomplishments make them ideal companions. They act as cultural interpreters to explain local customs and transform your understanding of another part of the world.