Luxury Adventure Company Abercrombie & Kent Celebrates 50 Years of Celebs, Safaris and Success

PHOTO: Geoffrey Kent in Kenya, about 1970. He said in those days, the most important thing was to find a sturdy branch at just the right height to support a canvas shower bucket.

He counts Bill Gates and David Rockefeller among his friends. He's taken Oprah, the Clintons, Richard Burton, Jane Seymour and, as he tells it, countless other celebrities on safari.

He was inducted into the British Travel & Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame this year. He is the founder and CEO of the world's first luxury adventure company, now in its 50th year.

Geoffrey Kent, whose company, Abercrombie & Kent, leads tours on seven continents in more than 100 countries. Not bad for a kid who grew up running barefoot around his family's farm in Kenya.

In 1962, Abercrombie & Kent was born with just one Land Rover and one guide – Kent himself. The first half of the company name was something he made up.

"I wanted to show up first in the phone book," he explained, referring to the A-B letters of Abercrombie.

At the time, Kenya was under British control, but independence came suddenly to East Africa in the early 1960s and the Kent family's friends began to leave for other parts of the world.

"We decided to stay," Kent said, "because we knew Africa better than anybody. We [his father and mother] had been taking friends on safari for fun for years. We decided to turn it into a business."

Though the roots of A&K are humble, the vacations it leads today are anything but. He makes no apologies for catering to wealthy travelers and often says, "If you don't travel first-class, your heirs will." Kent describes his trips as "complicated, experiential holidays," and as he said, "these things cost money."

The trips, which run on seven continents and range from African safaris, to cruises in Antarctica, to tailor-made journeys through Europe are, as he says, adventures with a "huge dose of luxury injected in." It's that luxury that appeals to his celebrity clientele and his company's services extend to granting opportunities that could only be possible through his star-studded connections.

Given the ongoing economic slump, it might not seem like a good time to be in the business of luxury travel, but a half century after its inception, Abercrombie & Kent is thriving, Kent says. The company employs more than 2,000 people at 50 offices around the world.

Frits van Paasschen, president and chief executive officer of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc, said on an earnings call last week that the industry is "... on the cusp of a Golden Age in luxury travel."

"Luxury," he said, "is no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition. What once was prescribed is now personalized, with less formality and more fun. New experiences and discovery matter more than extravagance and status."

Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International, agrees that it's a good time to be in luxury travel. "Clients are looking for a higher level of personalization when they travel now than ever before," she said. A&K, she said, is a go-to for the kinds of experiences her clients want.

"A&K does a tremendous job of catering to the high-level, demanding luxury traveler who is willing to spend a lot for an incredible vacation but who still expects a lot of value for the dollar," said Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International.

Kent's first big-name client was David Rockefeller. He had read a Time magazine article about Chase Manhattan opening in Nairobi. So he traveled to the United States and got a meeting with Joseph Reed, who was then vice president and assistant to Rockefeller. After several more meetings, Reed chose Kent to guide Rockefeller's first safari to Africa. "The rest," said Kent, "is history."

On that game-changing trip, Kent overheard Rockefeller say he would be coming back to Africa and bringing a group of 120 from the International Monetary Fund along. Kent asked to lead the group and was told "No." Not willing to leave it at that, Kent flew to New York and repeatedly pestered Rockefeller to allow him to lead the expedition. Rockefeller finally caved. "That was the year I stopped being a guide and moved to an office," Kent said. It was 1972.

Since then, he's taken the very rich and very famous around the world, including Oprah and her book club, who had just read "Cry the Beloved Country,"target="external" by Alan Paton. The highlight of their trip, Kent said, was visiting the village near Ndotsheni that's featured in the opening passage of the book.

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