With over 60 years in the travel and tourism business, Geoffrey Kent, founder and co-chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, reflects on the changing face of luxury travel
As told to Selma Day
How has luxury travel changed since you first started?
One thing that has remained consistent is that people are curious. What has developed over the years is that people want to get under the skin of a destination and its culture. They are seeking full immersion and disconnection from the rest of the world, away from screens and daily distractions. It’s less about the thread count of bedsheets and more about quality experiences that leave you coming away having learnt something.
Has the pandemic changed the way people travel? What are the priorities of the super wealthy?
Over almost 60 years in the business, I have learned that crises create opportunities. Not being able to travel has given us a great revival; travel is not something people are cutting back on. Guests are looking for different experiences and destinations with more outdoor adventures in wide-open spaces and more customisation, including private air charters.
You were at the forefront of preserving the environment – is sustainability top of the agenda now for people?
Thankfully, the concept of responsible tourism is catching on. Indeed, notions of sustainability, carbon neutrality, animal welfare and cultural sensitivity haven’t always been in sync with the travel industry. Still, increasingly, we find our customers are asking us to book hotels with eco-friendly practices, to support the local communities they’re visiting, and to find carbon-neutral ways of making the journey.
Are you finding that the super wealthy are wanting not just to travel but to give something back to the places they are visiting? Is philanthropy the last luxury?
We founded A&K Philanthropy (AKP) in 1982 as a nonprofit working with communities on education, health care, conservation and enterprise development in the areas our clients travel to. Simply put, we work with our neighbours.
AKP has full-time community development professionals on staff around the world. Our philanthropy coordinators meet with communities to identify local issues and establish where we can have the most significant impact. We never just have a great year, write a cheque, and walk away.
I believe responsible tourism is a more authentic way to travel. Our guests define luxury as having an authentic experience that is true to the place and its traditions, incorporating elements of the past and reflecting local culture.
What trends are you seeing?
We’re seeing people wanting to do less and do it better. People want to do big-ticket trips, for example, a safari. But why limit it to one country? We have our camps and lodges across Africa. On one trip, you could visit Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls and then onto Zambia and Botswana.
Why has A&K been so successful – especially with the rise of the internet and independent travel?
We often say: “Why wouldn’t you book with a tour operator?” Setting aside the financial security with ABTA and ATOL, A&K’s network and buying power worldwide means we can VIP you everywhere you go. If there’s a small flight change in the depths of Africa, you probably won’t hear anything about it as we’ll look after everything.
What have been the most unusual requests?
I always say: “You’ve got to have something nobody can do.” If you can Google it, someone can do that before you. For example, next year I want to do a trip flying onto an aircraft carrier. That would be cool. You’ve got to make it difficult.
Do you still get a buzz out of travelling? What kinds of things do you enjoy doing?
I will always get a buzz out of travelling. I run Inspiring Expeditions, unique adventures designed for small, exclusive groups personally led by me, and usually operate only once. Next year, we are planning a grand tour of Britain’s great country estates, including behind the scenes at Windsor Castle and staying at some of the most extraordinary private stately homes.
If there was one place you could be stranded where would it be?
It would have to be Kenya; I was born on safari and grew up there. Or my new home in Florianópolis in Southern Brazil.
You live in Monaco – what do you like about it?
I was looking for a new home that was centrally located and had mild and sunny weather year-round. Its location is amazing, convenient for doing business in Africa, Asia or Europe.
Do you use Mayfair much? What do you like about it?
In 1972, I set up A&K in the UK and I was living in the USA. I needed to spend more time in London and needed a place to live and have meetings, so I moved into The Ritz. Living there in a suite made the most sense for its central location and excellent food. I still remember the wonderful teas! And the gorgeous dining room is where I’d have lunch and dinner meetings, and the food was exquisite. In 1987, when I was captain of the Windsor Park Polo team for HRH King Charles III, I started staying in Claridge’s every summer and then, in 2002, I bought my own house in London when I relocated to the UK. China Tang is a favourite, especially as I was a great friend of Sir David Tang.