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ENCOUNTERS WITH AGGRESSIVE HIPPOS, STINGING SCORPIONS AND KIDNAPPERS IN SOUTH SUDAN—HOW ABERCROMBIE & KENT PIONEERED LUXURY SAFARIS INTO A GLOBE- SPANNING NETWORK OF 57 COMPANIES IN 30 COUNTRIES, WITH A TURNOVER OF NEARLY $1 BILLION.
He has been to 156 countries, traveled 18 million miles, and is on the road approximately 280 days a year, but Monacobased travel pioneer Geoffrey J. W. Kent wouldn’t have it any other way. Founder, chairman and CEO of the international luxury travel company, Abercrombie & Kent, the 77-year-old entrepreneur recently returned from an expedition to the South Pole.
“That was a strenuous trip,” says Kent, “but more people have been to Mount Everest than Antarctica, which is why we go there. Abercrombie & Kent was always built with unusual experiential places in mind, not the usual places where normal companies went.”
“All you need is a good idea,” adds the Monaco resident since 2007. “Then you make it work.”
Which is precisely how his home-grown company was launched, back in 1962 in Kenya, when Abercrombie & Kent became the first travel enterprise in the world to host tented luxury photographic safaris.
These days, the Abercrombie & Kent group has a globe-spanning network of 57 companies in 30 countries, with a turnover of nearly $1 billion.
Born while his parents, Colonel John and Valerie Kent, were on a safari in Zambia, Kent was raised in Kenya, 50 miles northwest of Nairobi. “I grew up on a farm and was surrounded by elephants and cape buffaloes.
When I’d ask my father where we were going next on holiday, he’d smile mischievously at me over his gin and tonic and say: ‘To a place where
you can’t drink the water. ”
After an adventuresome solo motorbike trip from Nairobi to Cape Town (unheard of at the time) and serving in the British Army at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Kent returned home to contemplate his next move. “In those days travelers who came to Kenya were, for the most part, there to shoot animals.
That’s when I came up with the slogan, ‘Shoot with a camera, not a gun.’ But the problem was, there was nowhere to stay.” Kent brainstormed on the concept of an extravagant “Off the Beaten Track Safari,” where you could live an adventure but no longer had to rough it: a carpeted mobile tent with toilets, a washbasin, mosquito nets, fine linen, china, crystal wineglasses, chilled martinis, and a selection of delicacies from smoked salmon to chocolate cake.
“There was no Abercrombie,” Kent confesses. “It just sounded elegant and the name also put us in the front of the Yellow Pages.” Early on inthe seventies, as the company expanded, they began looking beyond African safaris to more far-flung destinations, including China, Egypt and the Amazon. (Today, the 14-day Signature Great Migration Safari starts at $19,995.)
Although over the years, Abercrombie & Kent have had a few setbacks (“a revolution, an uprising, the Gulf War”), the driving force has always been to explore uncharted territories with exclusive luxurious accommodations. “I try to do everything myself, but in the early years, I was way too much on the edge,” Kent shrugs.
Predictably, in his riveting best-selling 2015 memoir, Safari, there are harrowing tales which include the potential of having his face torn off by a hyena while camping in Botswana, a narrow escape with an aggressive mother hippo on a river boat (“they can bite it in two”), near-fatal airplane crashes, scorpion stings, snake bites, close encounters with sharks, and the ordeal of being kidnapped in South Sudan.
“What I really believe in is luck,” claims Kent, who was a World Polo Champion, winning the U.S.
Open twice and having also played with the Prince of Wales’ team. In 1996, he had a serious polo accident that left him in a coma.
It was life changing, Kent recalls, since he had to give up his passion but the sport has had a big influence in his business strategies. “I’m very
nimble, which is key to success. I can be going full speed one way and then suddenly shift to full speed the other way. Like polo, you have to work with a team. You also have to be elegant, very strong and take risks. And you cannot make mistakes or you’re
Now, after more than 50 years in the business— touring with the likes of high-profile clients from Richard Burton, Ted Turner and Hugh Jackman, to Melinda and Bill Gates, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Prince Charles—what changes has Kent seen in luxury travel?
“People used to be time rich and cash rich. They were older, lazier, not nearly as fit, and just wanted to have a good time,” Kent acknowledges.
“Now we’re cash rich but time poor. Trips are shorter—maybe 10 days instead of a month—plus people don’t repeat destinations anymore. The
other big difference is generational travel with large families—granddads will climb Kilimanjarowith their 16-year-old grandsons. They’re ready
for a challenge.”
Over the past two decades, high-end travel has also veered toward a philanthropic focus on bettering the community, a trend that Abercrombie & Kent pioneered in the early eighties. “I wanted locals to see that it was in their best interest to keep the lions and leopards alive,” Kent explains. One example was creating a park in Bwindi, Uganda, where tourists could observe mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, and the idea was to bring in money to create a hospital, maternity ward and a nursing school. By the same token, the handpicked guides show the travelers their land of their birth, offering an insider’s understanding of their history and culture.
“Bill Gates had no idea of what Africa was like until he went on one of our safaris, and then went on to spend billions of dollars there,” he says.
In February, when Prince Albert was on an official visit to Rajasthan, Kent took him to see what is being done to protect Ranthambore National Park, a sanctuary for endangered Bengal tigers. Having done business in India since 1984, he also arranged introductions for the prince to meet
with members of the various Royal families.
That same month, Kent formed a partnership with Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Chairman of Monaco-based Heritage Group (and also Executive Chairman of Silversea Cruises), to jointly acquire 100% of the Abercrombie & Kent Group of Companies S.A. “I am very excited to be working with Manfredi,” Kent enthuses. “We have known each other for more than twenty years and I cannot think of a better or more experienced partner for the next phase of Abercrombie & Kent’s growth.”
Above all, Kent believes that the key to his company’s success is perseverance, passion and working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. “Louis
Pasteur once said that chance favors only the prepared mind,” he muses. “You have to be ready for anything.
Lanie Goodman Contributor
Born and raised in New York, Lanie Goodman is an arts and travel writer based in the south of France since 1988. She is a contributor to publications such as T-Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveller and Departures, and the author of Romantic French Homes . Formerly a Professor of French Literature at CUNY, she teaches courses in journalism and cinema at the SKEMA at Sophia-Antipolis. Lanie covers arts , travel and lifestyle at Forbes Monaco.