The Chief at Abercrombie & Kent

An Interview with Geoffrey Kent

Geoffrey Kent, the man behind the eponymous travel company (there is no Abercrombie), is one of the best raconteurs I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

That is not his claim to fame, of course –  not as far as the general public is aware, anyway.

He is better known as a pioneer who keeps re-inventing the art of travel as a matter of  inclination but also to ward off attempts at  imitation.

Among the polo playing crowd, he is known  as an intrepid player – one of the best in fact – with a number of major trophies to his name.

He and I both know that I am at his home to  hear about Abercrombie & Kent, but the man is irrepressible and the tales literally pour out  of him.

He tells me that David Rockefeller, profiled in B Beyond a few years back, was the great catalyst behind the company as it now is.  Not only did he give young Kent one of his first major breaks when he let him organize a  business conference in Africa, he remains a client and a friend to this day.

Fifty years ago, Kent started a small travel  company with his parents – with not much more than a refrigerated Bedford truck and his mother’s silver ice bucket – and has since turned it into a formidable brand that strides miles ahead of any other in the industry.

This is because, in addition to all those things  mentioned above, he is also a visionary  with a head for business and a talent for  perseverance that are truly impressive. Not content with being ‘our travel man in Kenya’, young Kent decided to broaden the company base in the ‘70s by going to North Africa and to Egypt in particular.

‘Everyone should see the pyramids before they die’, he says, ‘it’s the number 1 bucket  list item’.

Having taken a Nile cruise before this was fashionable, he came up with the idea of  leasing the entire boat used for filming Death on the Nile and organising his own trips. The first attempt ended up in near disaster and taught him a valuable lesson: that it is better to control the operation from start to end than rely on any suppliers.

The way he tells the story is anecdotal, as  these things become after time, but you  sense that it must have been a watershed point for him. ‘I had this very VIP group from New  York. They were all having a drink on  board when the engine was started. The engine hadn’t been used forever, of course, and suddenly, this huge cloud of soot landed on everything. The guests were all completely covered in it, none of the toilets worked, nothing worked…’

Kent cancelled the trip and flew his  guests back to New York. ‘Lucky mine wasn’t a very big company at the time’,  he says, ‘or this would have been a major PR disaster. This was my first  experiment of trying to get out of Kenya and while the idea was right, the execution was bad’.

I suppose others might have dissolved then and there in a pool of  embarrassment, but not Geoffrey Kent. Undeterred, he decided to build his own small ship, put a swimming pool on it (the first ever on a Nile river boat) and hire the best local guides. This ‘worked perfectly’.

He knew then that he would have to build his own end user product (EUP in Abercrombie & Kent parlance) and ensure that the guides were indeed great, providing that ‘last mile of the experience’. He hired and trained local people, Kenyans and Egyptians, and made sure there were always enough guides on each trip to act as hosts.

Guests could meet the guides’ families, talk about the country with a native and have a feeling of belonging. In the 70’s, this must have been a life-changing  experience.

kent egypt

Geoffrey Kent could have easily carried on like that for a good long  time and certainly until newcomers came to challenge his established operation. But the man is nothing if not a strategist, so he looked at options of spreading the operation into new territories instead – places where ‘you couldn’t drink the water’. As ever, there is an anecdote that accompanies the quip.

‘My father went to Kenya in 1936 with  the King’s African Rifles’, he begins. ‘Whenever we asked, ‘what are we going to do these holidays’, he’d reply, ‘we are going to another place where you can’t drink the water’.

‘He loved that expression. It meant, of  course, we would be going to a place that was exciting, a place where few people had ever been. We went all over Africa, on these truly amazing trips. So, my strategy was and still is, “Go anywhere  you can’t  drink the water.”

His strategy is, in fact, more elaborate than that. He would go to a place, buy the EUP, build the logistics around it and add that famous last mile of experience, the guides.

Still in the 1970’s he was already spreading to South Africa and looking at India. The country had two attractions: water you couldn’t drink and polo.

Kent’s polo playing career is well-documented. He was one of the  world’s best amateur players in his  time and captained Prince Charles’ team.

His slightly out of sequence  (1980s) anecdote is part of the  game’s colourful history and one where he was centre stage. He was asked to be a referee at a  polo match in the 1980s when one of the then top players, Col RS “Pickles” Sodhi broke his collarbone in a big collision.

Knowing it’s very hard to replace a 5 goal player, Geoffrey Kent had a  premonition of what was coming as he watched the Maharajah of Jaipur stride towards him.

“Bubbles”, as the Maharajah is affectionately known, used every argument in the book, including old regiment loyalty and personal friendship, to persuade Kent to step in and replace Sodhi.

‘Wait a bit,’ thought Kent, ‘I have never ridden these horses, I am not  psyched up…’, then he decided  not to over-think it.

‘OK, I’ll do it.’ They had to  announce on the loudspeaker that breeches, boots and helmet were needed in his size. Once kitted out and on the field, he had, he says ‘a sheer lucky ball, and then another and another’. He scored 3 goals in all and won the India Open Championship.

But back in the 70’s, his first thought was that no one was promoting India and the sheer excitement of it properly. It was Aisha, the late Rajmata of Jaipur,  who encouraged him to go to the Pushkar Fair, because ‘all people do when they come to India is sit around  the palaces all day long’.

Just like Aisha, who was as outspoken as she was beautiful….

Kent went on to become the first  company to offer a high end camp at Pushkar.

kent india

From India, he got the confidence to  spread even further afield and started  taking groups to Nepal (he even took Prince Charles on expeditions there) and to Bhutan.

One of the places he always wanted to  go to was Sri Lanka, but was deterred  by the continual problems in the  country. Last year, he finally bought an  office and raised the A&K flag there.

‘Where aren’t you?’, I ask him.

He explains that when he considers a  new destination, the first question is: ‘Do we have our own ground operating company there?’

‘We are not in Brazil. We sell Brazil and operate ships on the Amazon River, but we don’t actually own a ground operating company there. My wife is from Brazil and we have a home in Florianopolis. Brazil has a lot of potential. It is a vast, beautiful and largely undiscovered country but there are no 5 star properties, so we would like to do that in the future.’

But the thing that most excites Geoffrey Kent at the moment is his new venture: private jet safaris. He has just come back, he informs me, from the Serengeti, where he took 40 people on a private A&K jet to watch the wildebeest migration.

‘Since the very early days of A&K, I decided that I wanted to take on  tours very sophisticated people (who  are usually very wealthy people). I’ve never had an interest in a mass  market operation and A&K is the only  company that has never compromised  on this. But you have to continually  come up with new product because others are always trying to copy us.  One of my ‘favourite’ marketing pitches  is: ‘We are as good as A&K ‘ – which,  of course, they are not – ‘but half the price’.

He says his new venture re-focused his  mind on that vital component of the  A&K trips: the guides.

He decided to introduce a new concept – that of hosts. The A&K hosts had to be ‘top notch people’ – sophisticated, charming, knowledgeable and above all, very well-travelled. They needed to be able  to tell a good yarn.

It must have occurred to Geoffrey somewhere along the line that he was  really looking for a clone, because he decided to do the first trips himself. He has since found 3 hosts – people who have been in and out of A&K, know the company well and have been clients  in the past. They are all the things he describes above AND physically fit. He has, of course, also kept the guides  who provide the local knowledge.

How did the idea occur to him?

He considered what he had by way of end user product that could not be  easily replicated and then it came to him.

‘Why don’t I do private jets, I was one of the first to go on a Concorde flight and we (A&K) did round the world trips by Concorde that were very successful. Plus, I know a lot about this business. Let’s launch that again.’

‘So I launched two: one private jet trip around Africa and another around the world which will take place in October 2014.’

‘I am pioneering this,so I am doing it myself. I planned it by asking myself and answering this question: If I had a private jet, where would I go?’

‘For the African tour, I took Lalibela  in Ethiopia, then Uganda to see the  gorillas (I was the first to build a gorilla  camp there), then the wildebeest  migration in the Serengeti ). I have a camp there, in the middle of the migration route, from where you can watch 1.5 million wildebeest – only during these 3 months of the year. It’s a fantastic feeling.

kent wildebeast

Namibia is next, then the Victoria Falls  in Botswana, where my favourite camp,  Sanctuary Chief’s Camp, sits on a 4000 ha reserve. It is the best camp in the world.  We finish in Cape Town, drinking beautiful wine and having great food and that’s the end of the trip.

When we first announced the trip, the whole thing was sold in 6 weeks. My  office said, if it is this successful why don’t we sell 15 days and then the return trip? And that is what we did.

The round the world trip by private jet  was based on the same idea.

We will leave from Miami, fly to the  Amazon, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the South Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, the Komodo Islands, Madagascar, the Maasai Mara and back home. If I had a private jet, that’s the sort of trip I’d plan. This trip sold out in 15 days.’

What, I wondered, makes his formula so successful? What he tells me makes  perfect sense but sounds much easier  than it must be. Geoffrey Kent knows his logistics better than anyone else and this is what his clients pay for.

‘I worked out years ago that the number one thing that ruins a trip is baggage. Having to deal with packing, unpacking, customs, immigration, lost luggage… I knew I had to control that.

A&K has its very own ‘Travelling Bell  Boy’ service which takes over the  luggage logistics. Bags are labelled, colour-coded and numbered; they get loaded and unloaded, taken through  immigration, taken to camp or a lodge and placed in the guest’s room. When the guest leaves, the same thing is  repeated in reverse. The guests never see their luggage, except when they need it.

Our luggage trucks are built on the FedEx model, driving for up to 8-9  hours from one destination to the next.’

Logistics aside, A&K is very much like its founder: an adrenaline-powered adventure-fuelled concept with a certain undeniable style.

Kent goes on, ‘My whole life has been about putting together something  that’s completely raw – a kind of  primal activity that’s full of underlying excitement and where anything could  happen – then counter-balancing it  with the most beautiful comfortable camps, complete with flushing loos, hot showers, electric lights… These camps are very much like super hotel rooms, but transported in a truck.’

He adds, with a chuckle that he’s always marvelled at the average American’s  definition of danger: driving through the amber light on the way to work.

The A&K trips are designed, he says, so that people can see really unusual  things in safety.

Building on the success of, and  obvious demand for private jet safaris,  he is planning trips for smaller groups  – 24 or even just 12 people at a time –  and for 9 to 12 days, to accommodate  the perennially busy schedule of his  typical customer.

And while East Africa and India remain popular destinations, he will  be adding less familiar ones, such as little explored parts of South America, China, West Africa and the vast land- locked central region of the African continent. These are trips for wealthy aficionados, he says, who know that  there will be an element of risk, but appreciate the fact that everything is taken care of.

How much risk, I ask?

By way of reply he tells me another  story, this time to do with space travel and how he went up in a supersonic jet fighter, an English Electric Lightning, in  South Africa, just for the hell of it, but also because he has a rule: test every package before taking clients.

‘I’d push the envelope to the absolute  edge’, he says, ‘but will pull back if it’s not totally safe for my clients. I have two mottos:

1. Go anywhere you can’t drink the water

2. I’ll do it myself first. If it doesn’t work, modify or re-design it’

The private jet travel concept opens up the whole world, he says, and an off  shoot of that is a new business model  – planning trips for people who own  their jets, but who wouldn’t know or  can’t be bothered to plan an exciting itinerary, not to mention take care of  logistics A&K style.

He plans to have distinct departure points for different round the world trips, in addition to the 62 or so offices he already has around the world.

The beauty of the concept is that a competitor would be hard-pressed  to copy it. Kent goes back to my first question: is he peeved at imitators? The risk, he says, would deter most would-be competitors, because the financial commitment is just too high.

So Geoffrey Kent is at it again –  pioneering – except this time round  and after decades of reinventing the  art of travel, he knows exactly how to  do it.

Why is he so driven, I wonder? The  answer is an oft-repeated line that  punctuates our conversation: ‘You have  to innovate’, says Kent, ‘you can’t just sit  on your laurels.’

And I have to ask you, dear reader,  if you had to pick any traveling  companion, for a trip of a lifetime,  would you pick anyone else?