Extraordinary expeditions7 October 2021
Over 59 years, Abercrombie & Kent has established itself as a leading luxury travel company specialising in award-winning tailor-made holidays and escorted tours. A specialist in polar exploration, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the group’s first maiden voyage to Antarctica. Will Moffitt speaks to the groups’ founder and CEO, Geoffrey Kent, about how his military background shaped his appetite for adventure, the challenges of delivering exciting and educational forms of polar exploration, and his plans to expand to Abercrombie’s swelling list of itineraries.
“There never was an Abercrombie,” admits Geoffrey Kent with a wry smile, “we made up the name. We had the old farm Land Rover and that’s how the company started.”
Kent is talking, of course, about Abercrombie & Kent, the travel company that he co-founded with his parents in Kenya in 1962. The group has since expanded across the globe, establishing a network of 55 offices in 30 countries, earning a reputation for delivering bespoke tours to far-flung places via car, bus or plane, and luxury cruises by boat. While the Abercrombie & Kent of today occupies the upper echelon of the industry pyramid, as its founder is only too happy to admit, it is a brand that grew from inauspicious beginnings, birthed in East Africa during the twilight years of the British empire.
Fresh out of the UK army after serving in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Malta, Kent returned to Nairobi just as Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech reverberated across the continent. Its implications for African sovereignty were explicit. In Kenya farms were due to be ceded back to local Africans, meaning that Kent – and his parents – needed a new profession. The trio decided to refashion the safari concept, bringing home comforts to the bush in the form of tented accommodation, fresh food via mobile refrigerators – then a novelty – and ice cold gin and tonics.
“By 1966, my father [had] left,” Kent says. “About four years later, my mother left. And so I found myself running this company, which had nothing, a couple of cars, three vehicles. So, I immediately got into gear on my own. And I just knew I wanted to use everything I’d learned from the military and have adventures.”
Exploring new realms
One way of doing just that was by boat: venturing to places as remote as Antarctica where Kent and a small team made their first expedition 30 years ago. Soon after Abercrombie’s founder travelled to Peru before travelling the length of the Amazon. “My captain said: ‘I never want to do this again. This is way too hairy,’ but I was so excited. Dodging all those sandbanks and swimming with pink porpoises. It was fantastic.”
Abercrombie’s deep dive into expeditionary cruising wasn’t simply born out of worldly curiosity, however. Financial circumstances were in fact its chief driver. “It was about money,” Kent admits. “Basically, we were owed a lot of money by the owner of the World Discoverer. We were his handling guy [and] we sent him a huge deposit. But he went bankrupt, so he had no chance of paying us back, so we took over his ships. And so, that’s really how it all started.”
The rise in visitors to Antarctica and the Arctic, along with voyages to the Galápagos Islands and Greenland between 2017– 2018, reaching a peak of 148,000 passengers.
Three decades on, the company’s intrepid cruises continue to draw in pockets of passengers every year as the expeditionary sector has continued to pull in record numbers of guests and birth state of the art vessels. Meanwhile, an ever-increasing variety of packed itineraries continues to offer passengers ‘once in a lifetime’ trips to exotic locations.
Particularly popular have been trips to polar regions such as Antarctica and the Arctic, along with voyages to the Galápagos Islands and Greenland. According to CLIA, visitors to all four rose by almost one-third between 2017 and 2018, reaching 148,000 passengers – a trend that was still going strong pre-pandemic.
Kent, meanwhile, has continued to expand the company to cater to this growing demand, ensuring that its vessels can cope during rugged excursions to polar regions. After signing a deal with French expeditionary outfit Ponant ten years ago, the groups’ Arctic and Antarctic itineraries have boomed while Ponant’s fleet has expanded. With seven state of the art vessels at its disposal, Abercrombie assembles a specialised line-up of marine biologists, ornithologists, historians, geologists and archaeologists for each expedition, while Ponant provides hotel staff as well as the captain and his team.
Merging to move forward
A series of savvy partnerships have bolstered company growth, not least in 2019 when it was announced that Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, the businessman behind Monaco-based Heritage Group – and the brains behind luxury expedition line Silversea – would acquire a majority stake in the company.
Even in an industry renowned for large scale mergers, the move represents a significant change to Abercrombie’s hierarchical structure. Speaking publicly on the matter, Kent has talked of the reshuffle as a bid to enable the group’s bold expansion plans, which involve opening between five and ten destination management companies (DMCs) a year in different continents. As he reminds me, the latest will open in Saudi Arabia in 2022, along with several luxury lodges built across the kingdom. That said, did the prospect of ceding so much power to an outsider – 85% to be precise – not trouble Kent. After all, this is a company that he built from the ground up with a land rover and a couple of safari guides.
“I think my partner has done a great job, but of course, we’re the original adventure company, we created these experiences,” he counters. “Silversea has luxury boats, but no raw experiences… our whole DNA is experiential.”
Speaking of Abercrombie’s brand identity, Kent recalls his early days spent with renowned naturalist and polar explorer Lars Eric Lindblad, founder of the eponymous Lindblad Expeditions. The pair worked together launching wind safaris in East Africa, but they had different ideas of what excursions should be. It was during those early years, Kent recalls, that the groups’ philosophy began to take shape.
“My vision was not the same as Lars. He was a great adventurer [but] his aim was very educational,” he explains. “He got everybody to go to the main lounge and if you didn’t come it would be broadcast in your cabin whether you liked it or not. You were educated every evening. I said, you know, ‘this is like going to school with a little bit of fun’. I wanted it to be fun with a bit of school. I liked his idea, but it was too much. I have a very laissez-faire idea of adventure. I love adventure that’s not [just] pre-packaged.”
In its contemporary iteration, Kent maintains that the spirit of adventure is very much alive and well, with the groups’ founding philosophy of ‘adventure by day, comfort at night’ well-practiced aboard its vessels. “We design travel for people who define luxury not so much by the degree of elegance, but by the quality of the experience,” he says.
A thirst for adventure
What then, according to Abercrombie’s founder, best explains the huge surge in popularity for these kinds of trips. Is it a hunger for authentic experiences, or perhaps the impact of climate awareness that is driving people to glimpse rare species in the Galápagos or the shimmering ice caps?
“I don’t think it’s so much an environmental thing. I think people want to go and see things they could never have [previously] seen in their lifetime,” Kent says. “I tell everybody, if you’ve got a week before you die, you’ve got to do an African safari, you’ve got to see the pyramids in Egypt and do a Nile cruise, and you better go to Antarctica. Those are the three greatest sites you can see in the world. I’m not decrying other places, but those to me are places you have to see.
“I think 9/11 was big,” he adds. “It was dreadful that that happened. But it showed that something bad could happen on your own doorstep. Until that moment, lots of Americans believed that everything was bad everywhere outside of America. I think that was a turning point for us.”
Since then, of course, Kent has had to contend with another seismic global event as Covid-19 spread across the globe, putting itineraries on hold as travel stalled and the race to create a vaccine ensued. More recently, as the vaccine rollout continues and borders reopen to international travellers, country by country, Kent and his team have been working to design new journeys that focus on space and privacy, with more outdoor adventures in wide-open spaces, as well as more customisation, including private air charters.
“We have faced many challenges over the years, and at the height of each crisis it always seems as though there is no end. But in every instance, we have weathered the storm and emerged even stronger,” says Kent. “Our global network of over 55 local offices has never been more important. It was critical early in the crisis as borders were closing; we were able to get all of our guests home. It will be equally valuable as we navigate the complexities as travel restarts.
With a host of exciting itineraries on the horizon, not least a trip through the northeast passage across the Russian Arctic in honour of the group’s first maiden voyage to Antarctica, Kent is buoyant about Abercrombie’s future. His parting message is to stress the importance of vaccination.
“As we come out of this pandemic, people are certainly going to be nervous. Unfortunately, all of us, including myself, have suffered. We’ve all had great setbacks, but there is a vaccine,” he says. “So, everybody should get vaccinated, then this becomes an endemic, and then we can move on with life.”
For a man who has visited 148 countries, a jab – or two – in the arm is now the greatest ticket going.