I was really excited to interview Geoffrey Kent. So excited that I missed his building, took the wrong turn and found myself in the wrong part of the country. It took millions of stairs to get back to where he lives. I was late and mortified.
The irony is not lost on me. Geoffrey Kent, the worldwide travel pioneer, a travel expert and founder of Abercrombie & Kent, the award-winning luxury travel company, has so far travelled some 18 million miles in 159 countries – a lot of it in some of the wildest corners of the planet.
He currently owns a “wonderful ranch and a place on the beach” in Brazil, a house in Kenya – Flavio Briatore is a neighbour, a house in London, but his base and what he calls home for the past 14 years is in Monaco. The weather, the safety and the fact that his five-year-old twins are happy at the local school here makes a lot of difference. “Where else would you go?”
Mr Kent admits he has spent the entire morning on various zoom meetings with some of the 56 offices around the globe. The empire which now employs over 2,500 people was built from scratch when in 1962 together with his parents he founded their travel company with the intent to host safaris around Kenya, and possibly move into other areas of East Africa. The business has grown beyond everybody’s imagination, but possibly not his.
The crisis of the last two years has only underlined its strength.
“Abercrombie & Kent was actually built for this period of time,” says Geoffrey Kent, while sipping his espresso.
“Way back we were the first to do individual, tailor-made personal travel. All along we had top tour counsellors to take care of you – knowing all your background, what you want, what you don’t want and we have been out in all the places, so actually we are made for what is happening now and we are able to accommodate the strictest demands of our clients with private planes, private yachts, safari camps, respecting their space and privacy.”
It takes two years from the idea to completion of an itinerary for Geoffrey Kent’s Inspiring Expeditions. These are designed for small exclusive groups, led by Geoffrey himself, and usually operate only once. Dreaming them up is his favourite part. This year’s trips started to take shape in 2020, during the most strict lockdowns – which, for a constant mover, was a challenge. Planning the expeditions kept him sane.
This personal touch, being personally involved, making sure everybody is well looked after and has, at all times, a person to call in case of need is a crucial part of the service. A lot of his exclusive clients have his mobile number on speed dial.
He recalls – with a chuckle – one Christmas Day not that long ago, a call from a client who had just landed in the Seychelles in a private jet: “I am so sorry to bother you, Geoffrey, but how much should I tip the porter?”
We have a good laugh. One of the million anecdotes he entertains his guests with. For many regulars a lot of the time the only condition for booking a spot is: “Is Geoffrey coming?”
People, it seems, are ready to travel again. “My around-the-world trip is sold out now – there is not one seat left. The other trips are 70 percent sold out and this is only down to Covid uncertainties and the constantly changing rules and regulations.”
I wonder if the luxury industry is immune to crises like a pandemic simply because the clients are very wealthy?
“Anybody with money wants value for money, they don’t care what they spend – this is almost irrelevant. I think what everybody wants today is some excitement. To experience the unknown. We focus on life-changing experiences. Travel is the only thing you buy that leaves you feeling richer. Luxury for me is a great adventure. An £800 bottle of wine does not excite me much, a trip to the South Pole or diving with sharks on the other hand….”
The holy grail for explorers, the South Pole, was on Geoffrey Kent’s wish list for a long time. He was able to accomplish it during his trip on December 15, 2018 – 107 years and two days after Roald Amundsen became the first person to stand there. The same trip to the South Pole with overnight camping on the high polar plateau – one of the most remote camping sites on Earth – is now part of Inspiring Expeditions by Geoffrey Kent, a 12-day adventure for 12 people only, planned for December 2022.
“All of these trips of mine have an element of danger – so I always do it first – preferably solo – and I try to take the danger out… First I do it mentally – you can eliminate most of the danger through an amazing guide, a top, top guide and by having the best equipment. When I then plan a trip for clients, I don’t try to save money, I spend even more money and make sure the trip is as perfect and as safe as possible.”
There was only one trip where clients didn’t follow. In 2004 when A&K operated trips on each continent, Geoffrey Kent set out to explore the edge of space.
“There is no way to know what the final frontier holds for my business without trying it out myself.” He was asked to deposit £2,000 in the event “it is necessary to fly the body back to the country of origin” and without telling a soul he boarded an English Electric Lightning – the supersonic British Fighter jet – in Cape Town’s site for military jet flights. “That was hairy!”, remembers Geoffrey, “We shoot off vertically from zero to forty thousand feet in one minute and then, after three loops we climbed to sixty-five thousand feet and accelerated to the full speed of Mach 2.2 until we were looking at the purple curvature of the Earth.”
With relief, not disappointment, he concludes that A&K Space never took off. The pilot David Stock was killed only months later while the same plane was at full speed in flight. Geoffrey Kent was incredibly lucky. In his memoir Safari he writes: “Starting A&K Space was one of my most audacious enterprises, but a good leader knows when to pull the plug.”
Born a survivor, during a safari in Northern Rhodesia (later to become the independent country of Zambia), he fell very ill and was rushed to hospital in Nairobi by chartered plane. The surgery performed by a Kenyan doctor saved his life.
And what a life this has been so far. A fearless boy growing in the Kenyan wilderness, a pioneer at heart, 17-year-old Geoffrey set off on a trip from Nairobi to Cape Town by motorbike – a mere 3,000 miles. He was the first person to complete the journey. The five-month trip not only whet his appetite for adventure, he realised when he had the opportunity to stay in a 5-star hotel during this journey that what he wanted was a life of exciting adventures by day, security and luxury by night.
“I thought, ‘I could live like this forever'”.
When Abercrombie & Kent started – apropos there is no Abercrombie, but it sounds grand and put the company at the top of the listing in the yellow pages – Geoffrey, inspired by his time at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, invented the slogan “Shoot with a camera not with a gun” and is credited with introducing the first luxury photographic African Safari.
A&K soon became the first East African mobile tented safari with refrigeration – this upgrade took place while 20 year-old Geoffrey almost wiped out the company’s bank account while his parents were holidaying elsewhere and… had no idea.
From Africa, the company grew globally, pioneering exciting trips to Egypt, China, Antarctica, the Amazon… They were also the first ever company to introduce travel by private jet with The Royal Air Tour in 1989.
Geoffrey Kent aboard A&K’s private Jet
Geoffrey Kent became a well-known personality but he credits his fame to one thing only: Polo.
“Playing polo was the original passport – Winston Churchill said: ‘Anybody with a two goal handicap will have a passport to the world.’ You may travel anywhere you want to go. And I did and met everybody.”
Kent was a player as Captain of the Rolex/Abercrombie & Kent polo team, winning the U.S. Open Polo Championship twice. He served as captain and patron of the Windsor Park polo team of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, winning most of the major trophies in England.
A near-fatal accident in 1996 meant the end of the successful Polo career. “I went cold turkey, sold horses and never played it again.” For a long time he could never bring himself to watch it either.
After the accident he put all his energy into the company. “Abercrombie & Kent is like a Polo game for me now: exciting, as much danger taken out as we can, but we still keep it on the edge. And like Polo, it’s all about anticipation. You go where the ball will be not where the ball is.”
At the age of 79 he is still planning and dreaming up new adventures, but what he wakes up for each morning he tells me are his two children, Valerie and Geoffrey Jr. who have just returned from school and happily greet their daddy. Valerie asks me to close my eyes and presents me with a baby doll; later she asks me to look after it for a moment which may look ridiculous but sitting in Geoffrey Kent’s sitting room full of toys and interviewing him with the baby doll in my lap feels totally natural.
“This is actually the best time to be a father. You have got lots of time! When I was first married I had nothing – I had a Land Rover, 100 pounds and a business to grow, now I am happily playing football with my kids and I tell you: They keep me young!”
The happy family chatter all around me means it’s time to go. I am given Geoffrey’s book, his memoir, Safari, which I will keep reading long into the early hours. When I open it the dedication reads: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”