INTERVIEW: Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent
Jun 09, 2017 12:18PM

How did experiential travel start and what does it mean to you?

Safaris were the original form of experiential travel – an opportunity to see truly extraordinary places and wildlife. From the beginning, I believed luxury
was the privilege of discovery, adventure, relaxation and insight, enjoyed in a context that perfectly suits the experience. Seamless service, safety and security are a given, but it is the unexpected touches that inspire a sense of wonder that elevate an adventure into a true luxury experience.

A&K established offices across Africa and around the world to ensure a consistent quality. This gives us deep roots and long- established relationships, allowing us to deliver beyond-the-guidebook experiences.

Our guides are always local and have an intimate knowledge of a destination. Most importantly, they must have an engaging personality that makes them an ideal travel companion.

What is driving demand for experiential travel?

Transformational experiences. When you travel with A&K, you don’t simply arrive at a destination and look at things; you learn from people with a lifelong knowledge of the region, who help you get the most out of the experience, and you leave with a new understanding of how life is lived in another part of the world.

For previous generations, travel was just a rest and a getaway, a status symbol, or an escape from reality, not a byproduct of genuine curiosity.

Travellers in our seamlessly connected era want to feel inspired by the places they visit and the people they meet, pushing past pre-conceived notions of different cultures, to become better informed.

How does A&K balance luxury and adventure?

Adventure by day and comfort at night.

How has travel changed since you started the company?

I helped my parents set up A&K after they were forced off their farm in the run-up to Kenya’s independence. Those early safaris were fairly modest, conducted with little more than my mother’s silver ice bucket and the farm Land Rover.

A turning point was my decision to focus on photographic safaris. I started with the idea of ‘shoot with a camera,not with a gun’, so we could not rely on hunters to provide food. An old army buddy helped me fix up a truck with refrigeration so we could have fresh food– plus unlimited ice for the gin and tonics– in the bush. It was the first time this had been done and it worked brilliantly. Within a year, we had 500 clients spending $250 a night – big money back then.

Safaris in those days were typically 30 days because it took so much longer to travel to Africa.

Why do luxury operators tend to be the first in a destination?

We have always sought to pioneer new and intriguing destinations, focusing on places so far off the beaten path that you can’t drink the water. A sense of discovery, as opposed to simply seeing, is at the heart of our DNA. Our reputation reassures prospective travellers that they will not sacrifice comfort for adventure.

Which destinations did A&K pioneer? And where’s next?

I worked closely with the president of Uganda to set aside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. Since the park was established, the gorilla population has grown from 302 to more than 400. Our guests spend more than $800,000 each year on gorilla-tracking permits.

Sri Lanka is one of our fastest-growing destinations. The capital, Colombo, is a trading centre with a fascinating blend of Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil influences. It is an exotic destination full of colourful temples, colonial-era trains, fragrant tea plantations, a wealth of Unesco sites and some of the finest wildlife spotting in Asia. The Pantanal in Brazil is an undiscovered wildlife destination. This freshwater treasure offers jaguars, giant river otters, tapirs and 650 species of bird.

What’s next for A&K?

Innovation is at the heart of our business. So much has changed since I started A&K more than 50 years ago, but the basic elements are the same. People still want an unforgettable holiday, but they now expect a higher degree of luxury with a deeper understanding of their destination and a more authentic experience. Successful luxury brands are those that are able not just to evolve but to stay one step ahead. Problems arise when companies are led by accountants rather than explorers.

Last autumn, I introduced Inspiring Expeditions, cultural odysseys for the modern adventurer who wants to explore the most remote and spectacular lands and oceans on the planet. We re-created Jacques Cousteau’s expedition to Palau on superyacht Saluzi.

This autumn, I am leading an expedition around the world by private jet with stops at the Hawaiian island of Lana’i, Tasmania, Borneo, Everest Base Camp, Bhutan, Armenia and Iceland. In the spring, we head to Lapland in search of the northern lights and later in the year I am planning a cruise along the Dalmatian coast on board a superyacht.

Which destination is your favourite and why?

Kenya, where I grew up. Earth’s greatest animal migration passes through in July, trekking from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. The smell of the rain and sound of thunder spur the migration forward.

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