GEOFFREY KENT – INTERVIEW

Founder and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, Geoffrey Kent, was inducted into the prestigious British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame in 2012, the year of the company’s fiftieth anniversary.  Ex-captain of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales’ polo team (1987 – 1991), he hovered between life and death after a nasty fall. His mild-mannered demeanor can be misleading; but his brain is ticking with travel ideas that challenge his clients with electrifying experiences! He is the emperor of marrying wild adventure with luxurious comfort and safety. Now opening an office in Monaco, he tells all.

 

F.1.M.: The ultimate dream is South Africa. As a young man, you just got up and made your first big trek across Africa.

G.K. : I grew up in Kenya and lived on a big farm high in the mountains. We were surrounded by horses everywhere. Soon I became enamoured with motorbikes and bought one.  Unfortunately you weren’t supposed to have motorbikes in school. This, should I say, spurred me to leave school prematurely (he smiles). My father was a British Army colonel and was not in the least happy. Living on the farm became impossible, so I told my father that I wanted to go to Cape Town, adding to this surprise, that I planned to by motorbike. After it was revealed that I had not planned the trip, he wanted to know when I was leaving.  I told him “tomorrow” and I left the next day.  I purchased a few things in Nairobi: map, some sleeping bags from the Salvation Army, and some raisins and nuts; filled my motorbike with petrol and water and off I went. Of course, there were no roads in those days, just tracks.  No phones or communications; I just took the map and I followed it. Of course I got into a lot of trouble.  I reached Tanganyika and landed in Dar es Salaam where they had just jailed the president. There were revolutions everywhere and I was totally oblivious to anything. I got down to Mozambique and a big war was going on there also. Trying to cross the Zambezi, I had an unexpected fall and ended up stuck there for a month; my motorbike rusted. Finally I was rescued by a Rhodesian army control.

When they informed me with alarm that I was in terrorist country, they piled me off in the back of the army truck and took me to Salisbury.  I got my bike mended and there I took off to South Africa, finally reaching Cape Town, 3000 miles in four months. I had survived!

I called my father who was livid and asked when I was driving back. “You know what, I have gotten smart. I am not driving back; I am lucky to have gotten here!” I was happy with myself. He then retorted that he was not going to send me any money. That was OK with me. I went to the newspaper and sold my story to the Cape Argus as the first person in the world to have travelled solo from Nairobi to Cape Town on a motorbike. The newspaper gave me some money and it was enough for me to come back on a cruise ship. It was a great adventure.

But my father was so angry with me that he sent me to the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst. At the age of 17, I found myself as the youngest officer to be trained at the prestigious British institution and therefrom, begin my indescribable travels: fighting a war in Aden, North Yemen; then on to Oman, Cyprus, Bahrain, Libya, and eventually all over the world.

F.1.M.: You changed the family company from a local safari company into an international luxury travel company.

G.K. : Well, what really happened was that I formed a company with my parents while I was in the military. In 1962 we lost our estate during the time when Kenya was taking over properties through the self-government process. My parents spoke of plans to go to Australia. I argued that safaris were what we were good at, so I suggested that we do it professionally. We opened up the company in Nairobi. Of course finding a name was a challenge.  I didn’t think that the name Kent was high sounding enough. We needed something influential that would one day become international, so we came up with the name Abercrombie.  The AB put us at the top of the Yellow Pages.  I had always wanted to charge a lot of money for my trips, but was too embarrassed. I didn’t want a cut-rate operation either. I believed that we could make people’s dreams come true, and that costs a lot of money.  So A&K opened its doors in Nairobi of 1962 with 100 pounds, one Land Rover, a farm and a guide – me!

F.1.M.: Has the spirit remained the same through the years? What is the true spirit of A&K Travel? 

G.K. : I think it is a question of DNA. Growing up on a farm was totally adventurous. You had to travel up to twenty miles just to see your friends, which eventually played a great role in my becoming a champion polo player. Then another part of the adventure was shooting; not because we wanted to, but because we had to, whether it was a buffalo that raided the farm, or a leopard in the night; wild animals were all over the place. It was natural, not as a sport, but as pioneers. Thus by the time I formed Abercrombie & Kent and left the British army, etc., I was all of 23 years old: had fought the war, been to South Africa, and attended Sandhurst (which was more frightening than any of the rest!). 

I went to England and America, and realized how utterly boring most of the people were. The idea crossed my mind that I should do something to bring the excitement of Abercrombie & Kent to these people. I remember writing in my diary that the most adventurous thing that an American did in those days was to run a yellow light. My life experience had made me afraid of nothing! I had the great idea to travel to all the countries that everybody was afraid to go, find out all about it, and inscribe it in the operations of A&K Travel.

Abercrombie & Kent became a legitimate company based on my British Army training days. I would go to a crazy country that no one had ever visited before and put in the logistics and operations, usually implemented by ex-army officers that I hired. The nuts and bolts of my goal was that everything had to run like the army: perfect, no sloppy tee-shirts, everything working with seamless proficiency.

F.1.M.: What does a customer expect from your organization?

G.K. : They expect efficiency; at Abercrombie & Kent, we see ourselves as a cocoon.

F.1.M.: So you consider the reality of the country, while keeping an eye for comfort?

G.K. : Again I say all of this stems from my growing up and my British Army background. My last job with the army was as an “Aide de Camp’ to General John Frost; who is the most famous British Army general of all times. He was Colonel Frost in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”  He was one of the most famous paratroopers ever known, and I landed a job with him. We were stationed in Libya and during an exercise, he said he never wanted to be uncomfortable. He had a lot of money. He said I want hampers from Fortnum and Mason, the best Cristal champagne … It really struck me, what a great way to live. He was such a tough guy during the day, but at night, he had his comforts. So as a young officer, I kept this in mind when I started A&K. Total adventure during the day with the excitement driving the adventure. However, in the evenings, you bring out the silver, the caviar, and champagne which has become a formula that I invented. It’s what people like and want; a hot shower, a warm bed, delicious food and great company.

F.1.M.: We know that you have plenty of VIP clients and people from the showbiz world. Could you share with us the names of a few?

G.K. : When I started A&K, I was a guide, working 10 months out of the year. A safari lasted a whole month with intensive tours of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. We are talking a massive amount of materials, huge diesel trucks, 13/14 staff members. I have to admit that not all trips were great in the beginning: once I had a horrible ill-mannered guy and I was stuck with him for an entire month. There was another extremely nice customer who had great family history and wealth, and that was a pleasure. Thus I opted to focus on top quality clients and model my industry to those who enjoy the best things in life. In the earlier days, I was blessed to have David Rockefeller, with whom I had lunch the other day. He is incredibly agile and quick of mind and while reminiscing, he said that he and his family have made 37 trips with A&K. Since then, we have taken Bill Gates to Africa, Henry Kissinger, Diane Sawyer, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Sting, Ted Turner, and the list goes on.

F.1.M.: You have a real passion for wildlife and A&K has a special care for the environment. So are you involved with the protection of the wilderness and conservation?

G.K. : Of course. When you travel, you obviously visit the local community as well. People live there so I wanted from the very beginning of my operations, to protect the local inhabitants of these regions. Our goal was to focus on health, education and the environment. By safeguarding the environment, we were also protecting the wildlife. We have always given generously to the Friends of Conservation and the Prince of Wales became the patron of this great organization. We actually saved the rhinoceros in the Masai Mara; from 5 rhinos we increased the population to 43; then we started our program for gorillas. We are accounted as saving the gorillas of Uganda, which is still an unspoilt country and provides you true adventure. If you have never had the opportunity to see one of these animals, Uganda is the best place where they can be seen. Ten days ago, I was down there tracking the silver backed gorillas and chimpanzees from the Kabiza wilderness. Our fundraising efforts resulted in our founding the A&K Philanthropy which now has operations in 40 countries, spanning 7 continents

F.1.M.: You have recently opened an office in the Principality of Monaco. Could you explain this choice?

G.K. : Well, for a guy who lives in Monaco, it seemed rather ridiculous that I didn’t have an office here. We have over 50 offices around the world. Of course, this was an occasion for rejoicing and celebration. As you know, the axes of our operations at A&K are twofold: ingoing and outgoing. I want to bring my clients here to create an incoming flow to Monaco. Let’s face it; this is a beautiful place and I love it. I am one of the new ambassadors here, and keen to promote this beautiful oasis wherever I go. When people ask me where I live, I tell them “in the most beautiful place in the world – Monaco!”

F.1.M.: Considering the travel market today, do you experience the crisis that is currently affecting all of Europe?

G.K. : I am very relaxed. I am sitting here with you with my espresso. Our business went up 27% last year and already this year we are growing at 30%.  I think that we have focused in on the top level of expertise. We are not interested in package travel as most companies do, because if it is price you are looking for, you can go on the internet; put the air and hotel together and off you go. The Net has practically killed regular travel companies. If you are looking for quality and above all, safety for you and your family while traveling, you will probably come to A&K. We tailor everything to the desires, needs and safety of our clients. The highest growth in travel today is family traveling. People are going for activities rather than acquisition; they want those exhilarating moments of sharing with friends and family. Celebrations like birthdays, etc. have grown by 20% last year and groups of 5 or more have grown by another 4%. People want to come back with something to talk about. Most people in their businesses have already travelled to Paris, London, New York, Milan, LA, and when you want the answer to “what’s new,” you come to A&K.

Where is the oldest civilization of a single village in the world?  Where man has lived in a village for the longest time until today? Do you know? It’s in Kurdistan in a citadel in Arbil. It has been inhabited for over 6000 years. It was formerly a part of the old silk trail, the cradle of civilization. But that’s the joy of my travelling; I like to get into the history of the place and picture myself there 6000 years ago. It’s like being Alexander the Great.

F.1.M.: This seems to be your technique of exploration, preparing the trip, the travel, studying the history of a place and, then, going on site.

G.K. : That’s how I do it. I tend to read a great deal and always look for new things that people haven’t seen. We were the first to hit Antarctica and were the first to get a licence in China in 1979.  At that time, there was absolutely nothing there. I stayed in an army barracks. Now we have a ship on the Yangtze River and huge offices all over China. It all starts with one step. I think it was Mao who said that “every great march starts with a single step.” I was the single step at A&K.

Believe me, I don’t just sit in Monaco and ask my people “who would like to go to Iraq”. I go there first myself, and then my people dread what is coming next, which could be “hey guys, we’re off to Iraq!”

F.1.M.: Are you saying that Iraq will be the next luxury travel spot?

G.K. : I’ll tell you what will happen. We currently have intrepid adventurers who are not afraid of remote tours. We call them market pillars. These people have been almost everywhere on the planet. Therefore they are really desirous of a trip like this. Of course, I go and check the place and logistics, myself; otherwise it wouldn’t be possible. For instance, a trip to Turkey through Kurdistan to Arbil would be a fantastic adventure. It’s not Bagdad, but northern Iraq. This is a trip that is more than feasible and I definitely would be tempted. This is the stuff of real adventure seekers. Certainly, I cannot just swop the lifestyle in Monaco for that in Iraq, but you take the covenant with A&K and we give you the licence to run the yellow light. If we say it is safe, then you can bank on it. It’s not a question of surfing on the Net and packaging a trip. I have to do a site inspection and work out how to package the adventure. I guarantee you that twenty years from this interview, you will see a booming tourist industry in Kurdistan.

F.1.M.: One of my fondest dreams is to visit the Oman valley.

G.K. : This is the very best. I went there and can’t wait to return. Finally, if you are adventurous enough to do Africa – from Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Oman and others – do it with A&K. I had the great opportunity of visiting the world’s oldest living tribe in Africa, even moving camps with them. They have been living the same lifestyle for hundreds of years. The ultimo! At Abercrombie & Kent, we guarantee 100% safe and unforgettable adventures, with maximum comfort. Making dreams come true, that’s my business!

About the author: Maurizio DiMaggio

Maurizio DiMaggio