The global growth of tourism, limitless access to information, and the democratization of travel media fueled by social media have led to an intense demand for deeper travel experiences.
Travel brands across all sectors are developing products that are more personalized, better aligned to local culture, and inspiring for consumers on a path of self discovery through travel.
However, long before Asian airlines touted local culture in international ads and hotels brought neighborhood coffee shops into their lobbies, Abercrombie & Kent was building experiential travel experiences for a sophisticated and affluent customer base.
Despite today’s mass interest in such experiences, Abercrombie & Kent founder and CEO Geoffrey Kent has maintained focus on his initial offering and customer type.
Where Kent has adapted the company’s approach is in how he markets the adventure travel company’s tour packages, the company’s response to global health and safety crises, and the Internet’s impact on consumers’ planning and booking process.
Skift recently spoke to Kent about everything ranging from his company’s early days and the introduction of new products to his hate for unbundling requests and future adventure travel trends. An edited version of the interview can be read below.
Skift: You’ve said before that you invented experiential travel. How did this come about?
Geoffrey Kent: I started the company in Kenya when I was a very young guy. In 1962, I developed a very unusual way to go on a safari, which was to shoot animals with a camera instead of a gun. Then I wanted to put the travelers in tents, but nobody wanted tents if they weren’t hunting.
It was quite a hard sell, but it worked because I put in caviar and ice machines. We had indoor toilets and showers, refrigeration, the best chefs and the best wine.
What I wanted to do was to have the contradiction of looking at hippos in the Mara River one minute and having caviar and champagne the next. There was this whole contradiction of life, which today is called experiential travel. I invented experiential travel. I’ve always been adventurous and I’ve always liked to live well so I put the two together.
Skift: The product began with a very wealthy customer base and has stuck with it. What was the idea behind introducing the A&K Connections product?
Kent: I’ve always kept Abercrombie & Kent at the upper level. A lot of people come to me and say you have to go for the mass market. I say, “No. No. No.” I think it would be too tiring.
The real reason that I introduced A&K Connections was because I got so fed up with everybody saying the trips were great but so expensive. I wanted to come with a product that was a really really good value. It’s approximately 30 percent less than the ordinary Abercrombie & Kent trip but I made sure that the guides are still outstanding.
Skift: Travelers at all levels today are seeking out a more authentic experience, whether it’s through a local guide, meeting locals, or eating regional produce and meals. What do you think is driving demand for experiential travel?
Kent: I’m amazed it took me 45 years to get this really popular. I asked, “What’s wrong with people? This is such a good thing.” I think that I should be credited with sticking to an idea.
What’s driving it today is that people have gotten much, much fitter. There are people all the way up into their 80s now who are still very actively fit. People aged 80 today are like people aged 50 in the 1960s. As a result, they have the money that they didn’t before. We also had the baby boom.
Above all, they’ve all been successful business people and traveled to almost every city. When I first started in the 1960s, Americans hadn’t traveled before and they wanted to see Paris. Now they’ve done that. Cities are done. Take me to Iceland, Antarctica or Kilimanjaro. That’s what they want to do.
What’s also really driven business are families. These days both partners work and they have kids at all different ages. The only thing that really keeps them all together is a trip. It’s not going to Paris where they get room service and watch movies. It’s diving in the Galapagos or horseback riding through Botswana. The activities are the key thing to keeping the family together.
Skift: What’s the business model behind Abercrombie & Kent?
Kent: We’re the only company that has 52 local offices around the world. Everyone says that they can arrange an adventure in South Africa, but what they really are is book publishers. At the end of the day, they use an agent. We will grow to 3,000 employees this year.
Think of it like a factory. The sales end of Abercrombie & Kent is like a show room, not the factory. Operating companies manufacture the Mercedes and they can change it, tailor it.
Everybody wants bespoke holidays today. Group travel is still a booming business, but there’s a huge rise in bespoke travel. You can only do bespoke travel if you own the operating car.
Skift: What does Abercrombie & Kent do to support sustainable tourism both for the environment and local culture?
Kent: I always have this big word – sustainable – in my head. You need to sustain community. You need to sustain the environment. You can only do that the good old capitalist way — with money.
You can’t ask people to do things from their own good will. They need cash. Tourism provides money. You can’t tell people that they should love and hug an elephant each day. It’s about the income that they’re going to get and we’ve done that through tourism.
New companies can’t focus on sustainability in a meaningful manner because they’re too small and it takes so much effort to start a new business. We went 20 years before we really started to get into sustainable tourism. We were just keeping the ship alive.
Skift: How has your competition evolved over the company’s existence?
Kent: With the new Internet and everything else that we have today, everybody can see exactly what we do. A lot of people copy our itineraries. Actually, our biggest competitor is the Internet; however, I’m trying to use it with my brand.
I feel sort of liberated again because I can go back to doing all of these exciting off-the-beaten-track trips. Travelers can do normal trips to Paris off the Internet. We’re going back to our roots, to the unusual thing because nobody is going to book one of my trips on their own on the Internet.
Skift: Another aspect of the Internet is social media, which is very visually oriented. Abercrombie & Kent also started with this focus on photography. How was the rise of social media impacted the trips and how are you using it as a marketing channel?
Kent: Well it’s much easier today because customers aren’t knocking each other with wide lenses. These phones are amazing and they’ve made our life much easier. We’ve also trained all our guys to understand the iPhone.
For marketing, we think social media is going to be one of the key areas. We recently took Tiffany Dowd on our big jet trip around the world and received 7 million impressions.
Every day hundreds of thousands of people would get a picture on Instagram. How could you do that 30 years ago? Everybody trusts the brand. I value this brand and think about it every day.
Skift: As travelers seek out more authentic experiences, do you see any pushback on the luxury element of your trips? Do customers want to live more like locals during their stay?
Kent: I sit with clients who tell me that they want to have a really authentic trip, that they want to live in villages with local people. I look them in the eye and tell them, “That’s what you think you want, but you don’t want it. I promise you.” They’re screaming within two days. I tell them to visit for a day, have that experience, and then always come back to warm, comfortable accommodations.
Skift: Which destinations are seeing the greatest growth in demand?
Kent: Myanmar is the fastest-growing right now and South Africa is really booming. The problem with Africa is that it always gets a bad knock for nothing. When the Ebola crisis happened, everybody said it was in Africa and I had to tell them that London is much closer to Nigeria than Cape Town.
Skift: How was your business impacted by those events?
Kent: We were impacted very badly for three months. People stopped booking and cancelled trips. There’s a lack of geographical knowledge in all of this. We’re driven by ridiculous emotions most of the time.
Skift: How much of an impact do geopolitical events have on your business?
Kent: A huge impact. We’re affected everywhere. I compare the company to a 12-cylinder Ferrari. Three or four can go out but I’ll still have eight left. I’ve worked every day to build this brand, which is to say that we’re actually not a safari operator. We sell the most incredible luxury holidays on Earth. If Kenya is off, the cylinder breaks down, then customers will come to us and ask where to go.
Skift: What’s next? Given your experience in travel industry, what trends do you see in the pipeline for the next 10 years?
Kent: People are going to get more adventurous over the next 10 years. More people are going to have their lives changed by travel. People are going to want to have their lives changed like how we do it – great guides, very unusual places.
Skift: What about the negative impacts of tourism? How does the industry overcome the environmental and cultural impact of tourism growth?
Kent: This is one of my favorite subjects. I’m always charged with being very elite and having a very elitist concept of tourism. My concept is that destinations should go for minimum impact and maximum yield. This is what I did with the gorillas in Uganda. Only a certain number of licenses are issued a day; it brings in millions of dollars and nothing happens to the forest. It’s OK if it takes someone three years to book to see a gorilla. Machu Picchu should have done the same thing and upped the price. The minute that you do it, you’re accused of elitism.
I was a student once and I would have been livid if I had been asked to pay to go to South Africa. Somewhere along the line, there should be a limit on people visiting a place, whether there are x number of passes for students or people who can’t afford it. Then you have more room for people who will pay more, which benefits the community.
Skift: How do you prohibit people from seeing something that has the ability to change their lives?
Kent: You can’t really, but the fact is that there are way too many vehicles all over the world. What I will argue is whoever comes, there should be some money that goes to the community. I don’t care whether it’s out of every dollar there should be an amount.
Skift: You recently introduced a luxury jet product. Where did this come from?
Kent: Steve Jobs’ book is amazing and I’ve read it twice. The biggest takeaway for me was when he said, “You can only build a company by developing and owning your own product. Good service alone will not build a brand.” What I’ve been working on for years was good service. I built the tent safari product, which was very hard to imitate for a long time. The Internet wasn’t around for a long time and I had a 15 year lead on everybody.
Now we have the Internet and you can “unbundle” prices. The worst word in my life is “unbundle.” I cannot stand the word, because you have to give a breakdown of all the prices. Then there’s no profit left. We give customers a price then they ask us to unbundle it and then they compare it on the Internet. Unbundling is a horrible thing for our business. I said to myself three years ago that I had to find a product that nobody in the world could unbundle.
I expanded Sanctuary Retreats then I came up with Land Rover Adventures and now there are the private jet trips. I wanted to re-create what I did in those camps 52 years ago – ultra-luxury travel to the most unusual places on earth. The itinerary includes Miami, the Amazon in Peru, Easter Island, Samoa, Papua New Guinea where you’re seeing amazing birds of paradise, Bali where we see Komodo dragons and go diving, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Kenya, and Monaco. All of these are going to be so hard to put together that a normal person could not do it. They could never unbundle it.