Zambian-born Geoffrey Kent founded luxury safari company Abercrombie & Kent with his parents in 1962. Now with 62 global offices and 350 tours in more than 100 countries, the business attracts more than 250,000 curious travellers every year. So how did he get it started – and what tips can he give to would-be business lions?
It’s a jungle out there – literally for Geoffrey Kent, who heads luxury safari company Abercrombie & Kent. Founded with his parents Colonel John and Valerie Kent while Geoffrey was serving in the British Army, the business was borne from what the travel tycoon describes as “a very clear vision: adventures full of activity during the day, with total comfort at night”. It’s a style of vacation combining thrill-seeking with elegance that has attracted scores of celebrities from Bill Gates, to Dr Henry Kissinger and Sting.
The grand-sounding name, incidentally, came from the desire for “something that would sound established and put us at the top of the Yellow Pages! Initially Aardvark was a hot contender, but in the end we settled on ‘Abercrombie’ because it sounded aristocratic.”
The concept, influenced by Kent’s military service, was: “Don’t shoot with a gun – shoot with a camera”, and he’s been credited with creating the first luxury photography African safari. After discovering he couldn’t rely on local hunters for fresh meat, he worked with an old army friend to design a refrigeration system that made it possible to have fresh food – “and unlimited ice for the G&Ts” – in the bush.
Abercrombie & Kent’s humanitarian approach is at the forefront of the company – “the chance to make a difference by using tourism to provide good jobs and protect wildlife and habitats in Africa”. On first meeting Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kent encouraged him to set aside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as a reserve for the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. “Seeing these magnificent animals in their remote home is an experience that stays with you for life.”
But first, you have to find them: while the Forest guides draw on their knowledge of the creatures’ habits, and information from the previous day to locate them, it may take up to eight hours to track these wild, unpredictable animals down. But it’s worth it: “When you look into their eyes,” says Kent, “you gain a profound understanding of the bond that exists between them and us.”
It also brings home the fact that they are on the edge of extinction and that the safari-goers’ presence helps protect the habitat essential to their survival. “Our guests contribute more than $1m to the local economy by purchasing permits to track gorillas, as opposed to shooting them. That’s the kind of solution we need in order to stop trophy hunting.”
For budding corporate Tarzans, the founding member of the World Travel & Tourism Council says the secret of entrepreneurial success “is the ability to turn on a dime, and turning adversity into opportunity.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also recommends the very thing that is said to broaden the mind: “Travel, no matter the destination, really changes your perspective; it clears your head, opens your eyes and helps cultivate new ways of thinking and the brightest ideas.”
And for the world-class polo player who travels upwards of 300 days a year, travel really is a way of life. “Any passionate traveler knows the conflict of wanderlust: the more destinations you see, the more you desire to see.”
Kent – who at 75 has recently had twins with his 35-year-old former model wife – says he’d love to spend time with the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, and overnight at the South Pole. However, it’s Africa, the country of his birth that retains the biggest pull on him. “It’s hard to express in words why it’s such a magical place… but as anyone who has ever spent time there will vouch, it has a way of seeping under your skin and staying with you long after leaving.”
Geoffrey's book Safari: A Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer is in shops now