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.Abercrombie & Kent staff
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.

But one of the most memorable moments came on a trip with Richard Burton. "There was a tremendous crash in the camp, the most horrific breaking and crashing," said Kent. "A buffalo had come into the camp. We flung up a table and pulled Richard behind it and watched as a lioness came and killed the buffalo right in front of us. We threw the table, then rocks and finally the buffalo was dead and the lioness went away. When it was all over Richard [Burton] said, 'I'd like to do that again one day,'" Kent said.

And while his other celebrity trips weren't quite as dramatic – Kent said he's never seen anything like the buffalo incident again – some have changed the face of Africa.

It was Kent who took Bill Gates on his "very first adventure." Until their meeting, Gates had only been as far as Europe. He told Kent he had flown there in economy class with "a blanket over my head," Kent said. Summoned to Gates' home in Seattle, he asked Gates where he wanted to go, Kent recalled. "He said, 'I'm not going to ask you about computers. I'm sitting for you to tell me where to go,'" Kent recalled.

They went to Africa for the first time in 1993 and Gates, Kent said, fell in love. Since then Gates has returned to Africa with Abercrombie & Kent many times and has donated millions of dollars to a variety of causes on the continent. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest grant-making foundations in the world, invested more than $1.2 billion in malaria research and development between 1998 and 2007.

On Kent's own list of priorities are conservation, mitigating climate change and supporting local economies. In addition to the luxury vacations his company is famous for, A&K also leads philanthropic trips. The company's philanthropy efforts began in earnest in 1982 when Kent, along with A&K Vice Chairman Jorie Butler, raised funds for conservation efforts within Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

Today, a major problem facing the Masai is the illegal practice of trapping wildlife for meat by outsiders. The Friends of Conservation (FOC), and a group of Masai known as the FOC Community Scouts, supported by A&K, patrol on foot, tracking and monitoring wildlife in their region.

Their presence also stems other illegal activities, such as charcoal burning and the setting of wild fires, unlawful tree cutting that leads to deforestation, and the poaching of bush wildlife for meat.

"Shoot with a camera, not with a gun," Kent says. (Incidentally, he takes credit for coining the oft-quoted phrase.)

Beyond conservation, which A&K has an obvious stake in as a business, the company also supports hospitals, orphanages and schools. When a cyclone devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, A&K's local offices delivered essential supplies to the affected areas and eventually raised more than $500,000 for emergency aid equipment.

And although Abercrombie & Kent was "founded for Americans," Kent sees the future of the company, at least the most lucrative part, in Chinese and Russian travelers. They demand the "kind of experiences you can't Google," said Kent, who has arranged such extravagant experiences for his clients as entree to an exclusive Oscar party and a private dinner with tennis champ Roger Federer. Nearly anything is possible, Kent said, for a price.