Meet The Man Behind The World's Best Travel Adventures

Noone does luxury trips quite like British travel agent Abercrombie & Kent 

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When Geoffrey Kent was a boy, he would sometimes ask his father where they were going on holiday. Colonel John Kent’s reply was always, “Somewhere we can’t drink the water.”

Exotic travel is in his blood: he was born on safari in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Growing up on the family farm in the Aberdare Highlands of Kenya, at 16 he set off on a solo motorbike trip covering the 8,000km from Nairobi to Cape Town because he’d heard it had never been done before. After studying at Sandhurst, he saw service in Bahrain, Kuwait and Malta.

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In 1962, Kent joined his parents in founding a luxury travel company that would allow visitors to experience the wildest parts of Africa, but in the utmost comfort.

Abercrombie & Kent was started with one Land Rover and a made-up name. There is no “Abercrombie”, but the family shrewdly wanted the company at the top of the Yellow Pages. Since then, he’s packed off clients such as Richard Burton, Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller on itineraries including ballooning over Burma, cruising the Northwest Passage and 26-day round-the-world private jet tours costing over £50K. Private chefs, drivers, guides, helicopters and villas (“that become like small Four Seasons”) are standard.

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“Bill Gates wanted to meet me, so I went to Seattle,” Kent says in the lounge of his London townhouse. “He said to me, ‘I want to travel.’ I asked him, ‘Where would you like to go?’ and he said, ‘Listen, if you want to ask questions about computers, ask me. You’re sitting here because you can tell me where I should go.’”

[A&K founder Geoffrey Kent says his affluent clients want wild encounters, stunning views and grandeur]


The travel agent now has 50 offices, 2,500 staff in 26 countries and 400 vehicles in East Africa alone. “Unlike other holiday providers, we own the operating companies, the vehicles, the guides — everything. We don’t have to listen to the Foreign Office telling us whether it’s safe or not. We know. Today, we have people all over Mombasa, all over Malindi, all over Nairobi. I call them on my phone and say, ‘What’s really happening here?’ and they’ll go, ‘Yes, we’ve had an unfortunate bomb or two, but the safaris are 100 per cent safe.’”

Kent notes that people want to have the most exciting trip possible, but the trouble with exciting things, he says, is they can be quite risky. “We put a huge emphasis on our guides. You can plan all you want, but if there’s a female elephant and she has a baby, she can get upset and charge at you. You can’t write manuals about that, but the guide will make sure you don’t get too close. The business is that during the day you have wild adventures but at night you have five-star elegance, wines and food. It’s that juxtaposition that people love.”

Kent, who still travels 300 days each year, has experienced his share of danger. A former World Championship-winning captain of Prince Charles’s polo team, in 1996 an accident severed his spinal cord and left him in a three-day coma. And despite being 71, he prides himself on only selling trips he’d do himself. He considered space tourism, so hired a jet fighter to trial the requisite G-force. “You could hardly breathe,” he winces. “Virgin Galactic? It’s never going to happen.”

Business is good, too: last year profits were up 22 per cent and he’s expanded into Sri Lanka, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Hong Kong and Beijing are next. “Then I’d like to go and look at Colombia, that’s really taking off now and Panama is going to be the new Costa Rica.”

I wonder if he ever has any difficult customers? He says, yes, all of them. “Our customers tend to be  cash-rich but time-poor. They never argue about price, but if anything goes wrong, the wrath of hell will be on top of you,” he grins. “And rightly so.” 

abercrombiekent.co.uk

 

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