Ker & Downey has its roots on distant shores. The designer of high-end, customized FIT (Free and Independent Travel) experiential tours started operations in Africa about four decades ago. It relocated to Texas in 1978, when the Botswana branch of the company was purchased. (Not to confuse things, but Ker & Downey Africa is a completely separate entity). Over the years, the Katy, Texas-based tour operator has expanded far beyond Africa to send luxury travelers on adventures, from mild to wild, around the world. Ker & Downey sells directly to consumers and also through travel agencies.
Skift spoke with Reid Bader, vice president operations and Nicky Brandon, the company’s director of marketing and sales, to get their thoughts on hot destinations, new trends in luxury FIT travel, and the importance of philanthropy as a business component.
Skift: Where are Ker & Downey travelers looking to travel next?
Bader: We are seeing increasing requests for trips to Georgia, Namibia and Japan. Interest in Georgia started about five years ago, and it’s been growing steadily the past few years. Namibia and Japan started trending up about a year ago. In Japan, travelers are looking for chill experiences outside of cities – staying in ryokans and visiting forests. Uruguay is another country where I expect increasing demand, due to the beaches, the culture and the wine.
Brandon: Myanmar and Ethiopia have picked up as well. Congo is also starting to come on the radar. The tourism facilities there are super-limited, but the wildlife experience there is phenomenal.
Bader: Yes, it’s a “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” type of experience. It’s going deep into Africa, seeing monkeys and gorillas, but also the fascinating colonial history feels closer there.
Skift: What are some trends you are noticing in the luxury arena?
Bader: People are much more actively seeking experiences that allow them to be present. Experiences, lodges and hotels that allow you disconnect from the “always on” society are pushing more folks than ever to head to Africa. Even in Africa, though, you have guides helping travelers learn to “put the camera down” and see the wildlife and landscape with their own eyes. Providing moments when you can be fully present in the amazing experiences, rather than distracted by social media, has become a significant luxury.
Travel amongst the elements is becoming much more popular. Treetop experiences are becoming a regular part of trips in Africa – from the Kanana sleepout to the fly camps in Zambia to starbeds in Kenya. Even in Europe there are amazing opportunities to sleep underneath the northern lights. And the surge in Japanese ryokan experiences reflects this as well with their emphasis on nature and water.
Also, the market is really adapting to multi-generational travel. For example, in Africa, in order to catch up with the demand, more safari lodges are creating family suites.
Skift: Talk a bit about the company’s philanthropic efforts.
Bader: Ker & Downey’s philanthropic goals are unique and important to us because they come from a place of responsibility. In Western society, more success often means that you’re more disconnected from the community at large. By committing ourselves to contributing to the communities that we visit as travelers, we’re sincerely connecting ourselves with authentic communities.
Brandon: A big part of the brand has been the philanthropy aspect, which is a personal passion for our owner and president, David Marek. We use proceeds from tours to get involved in on-the-ground projects. Among them are Nets for Africa, where funds are used to hand out treated mosquito nets to protect against malaria. We’ve partnered with Great Plains Conservation and Rhinos Without Borders to help move endangered rhinos away from poaching hot spots in southern Africa. (Another example–a portion of every custom Ker & Downey Cambodia journey goes directly to ABOUTAsia Schools–an organization supporting the education of more than 53,000 children in Cambodia).