Geoffrey Kent: A Luxury Safari Pioneer

The cofounder of Abercrombie & Kent, the high-end travel company, has visited more than 150 countries, often via private jet.

Geoffrey Kent, cochairman of the internationally known luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, has visited 158 countries and logged 18 million miles. He is usually clean-shaven and in a tailored suit, but since COVID-19 his suits have remained in the closet and he has grown a beard. On his desk sits his constant companion: a 40-year-old battered brown leather Louis Vuitton briefcase that has served as a car jack and emergency cash holder for airplane rentals in Third World countries.

Born in 1942 in Zambia, Kent was raised in Kenya where he learned as a small child to hunt and ride horses. At 16 he was expelled from his school for violating its rules by having a motorbike. He then ventured on a two-month road trip, becoming the first person to travel 3,000 miles by motorbike from Kenya to Cape Town. Upon his return, his father sent him to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, where he played polo. He would become a world-class champion, playing with the Prince of Wales, who has remained his close friend. 

In 1962, Kent, along with his parents, founded Abercrombie & Kent and began offering photographic safaris in Kenya. (He came up with the slogan, “Hunt with a camera, not with a gun.”) Five years later, his parents retired and Kent, who wanted his brand to be a marriage of adventure and extravagance, created the first luxury tented safari camp. He offered posh tents, mobile refrigeration, indoor mobile toilets, hot showers, real china, and private swimming pools.

In 1989, A&K introduced its first Royal Air Tour aboard a sumptuously refitted Lockheed L-1011 Tristar jetliner. The company also chartered the Concorde for trips in conjunction with American Express.

Today, A&K offers 350 luxury tours and expeditions to more than 100 countries across seven continents. Kent, who continues to organize new trips, lives with his wife and their four-year-old twins in Monte Carlo, where we caught up with him via Zoom.

What prompted you to want to make the safari experience luxurious?
My mum was very posh, and we were always well-dressed. Even when on safari, my socks were pulled up. My parents put me to sleep on a simple camp bed with a mosquito net tied to a tree over my head. I then joined the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards regiment of the British Army which was five-star gold-plate living at night and dangerous living by day. I decided to mix the British Cavalry with my youth and introduced experiential travel at the highest degree…super-luxury camping.

What happened when you took Richard Burton to Kenya on a safari?
On one of our first nights, we were in the Maasai Mara with a big fire going, drinking away, and suddenly it was dusk and I heard this huge, horrendous roar. Bursting out of the bushes came this buffalo with three lionesses on her neck. I grabbed Richard Burton and pushed the table over and we hid behind it. The lions finally killed the buffalo. I'm screaming at my staff to get a Land Cruiser and come and drive the lions off, and they did. And Richard Burton said, "Wow! That was terrific. Could you do that again for me?" He thought it was something we planned! 

You were the first to find the gorillas in the Congo, long before Dian Fossey, and then you brought tourists there. Is it true that half the world’s mountain gorillas are alive because of you?
A famous photographer saw the gorillas before me and introduced Dian Fossey to the ones in Rwanda. I went into Uganda and discovered there were at least 300 gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I suggested to the next president, [Yoweri] Museveni, that we make that into a national park. I’d habituate the gorillas but wanted exclusivity for the whole area. We created a fee-paying basis with all the money going to the tribe, not to the government. And my 300 mountain gorillas, because they were saved, grew to 433, half the world's population. 

Your second wife’s father owned an FBO. Did that have anything to do with you developing your early flying safaris to Africa?
It probably led to me doing my big private jet trips with [film producer and former Walt Disney Studios chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg all over the world. He and I did so many adventures by private plane. With him, I'd meet people with private aircraft, and I'd say to the owners, "Why don't you go and do this?" And some of them came on safari, bringing their planes. 

When did you decide to start flying adventures in America?
A couple of years ago. I wanted to create a destination management company within North America because I've always believed Americans, when they get into trouble, only travel in America. They did that after 9/11. I'm going to be leading a safari to all the national parks in America.

Do you remember the first time you flew by private jet? 
Yes. I flew in David Rockefeller's in 1969. I love private jets. My first big, long private jet trip was in the 1970s to Russia. 

How did you feel flying in that jet?
It was amazing. I thought, "This is obviously the way to go." When you have a private jet, everything is uncomplicated. You arrive at the airport, you get in, and you fly; it’s like catching a taxi. 

I went to Gabon the other day. Getting from Gabon to Monaco [on an airliner] is a big project: you've got to get to the airport three hours early, fly from Gabon to Paris, wait four or five hours, then get a flight from Paris to Nice. This time, we shut the doors, left Gabon within 10 minutes, and arrived in Nice. A helicopter picked us up and we were back home, all in about six hours. Done, finished. So nice.

How often do you fly privately now?
As often as possible. I took the family to Brazil. There was no way we were going to come by airliner with dogs, chef, children, and nannies. It was far easier to get a Gulfstream V and shove all of them in. That plane actually belongs to my partner, Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio [former owner of Silversea Cruises], so it was very easy. I called Manfredi and said, "If you want me back, you better send your plane. Otherwise I'm not coming back."

Are you now in partnership with Manfredi?
Yes. He's one of my oldest friends. He brought me to Monaco. We always plot and plan together.

If money were no object, would you buy your own jet, and if so, what one would you choose?
Probably the new [Gulfstream] G650. It’s very elegant and has tremendous range to get me anywhere on Earth. The [Bombardier] Global Express is beautiful, too. But I think the G650 tops them all right now. I'm putting the pennies away.

Are you offering any trips during COVID? And do the travelers have to quarantine once they arrive?
This is the problem. You plan a trip and it's all set to go, and then some politician says, "Sorry, lockdown, quarantine." And you have to cancel. So what is selling is internal U.S.A., but even the internal U.S.A. has got problems. In summer 2020 we sold a lot of trips to local villas in Italy and France; our guests wanted space and privacy.

We're trying to plan a big trip to Botswana. South Africa's still closed. I'm trying to do a jet trip to Morocco, but it's difficult until we get vaccinations. This quarantine is a nightmare. You can't plan anything. But we’ve already got 40 people booked for one trip without trying. I think people are saying, “Get me out of here.”

What are your post-COVID plans? Where are you going to bring clients?
I am trying to do a seven-day jet trip of 12 to 16 people. It’s easier to sell shorter trips. We're looking at some different jets now. I'm looking at [British charter airline] Titan Airways, and at the Boeing Business Jet. I'd also like to build more lodges in South America and do lots more in North America. I think we can build some wonderful lodges and camps, connected by private plane.

You’ve built three luxury ships to cruise the Nile. Do you plan on building more? 
We actually had a fourth ship about to be built, and then COVID hit. Egypt's one of the most incredible places on Earth. I always say, "You've got to do two things before you die: go on safari and see the Pyramids.” Also, we're leading a big trip to the Northeast Passage [across the Russian Arctic to Alaska] next year on one of our expedition cruise ships.

You were one of the first companies to offer sustainable tourism.
We saw a lot of poaching, and clearly somebody had to do something about it. We formed Friends of Conservation with Richard Leakey as one of the directors and the local Maasai chief. We taught the Maasai how to drive and created anti-poaching patrols. We provided four-wheel-drive vehicles and helped train rangers. We built big concrete plinths over rivers so we could pursue poachers. That was in 1982. In 1987, I was captaining Prince Charles in a polo team and I asked him to become the patron of FOC. He's just renewed his patronage for another five years. 

What do you want your legacy to be?
Simply that I changed people's lives.

Fast Facts

NAME: Geoffrey JW Kent

BORN: July 14, 1942, in Zambia

POSITION: Cofounder and cochairman of Abercrombie & Kent

EDUCATION: Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst (1959–1961)

AWARDS: British Travel and Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame, 2012; Lifetime Achievement Award in Travel Weekly Reader’s Choice Awards, 2014. Honorary Consul of the Republic of Kenya to Monaco. As captain of Rolex/Abercrombie & Kent Polo team, won U.S. Open Polo Championship twice, U.S. Gold Cup, Cartier International, and World Open Championship. 

PHILANTHROPY: Cofounded Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy

PERSONAL: Has one grown son, Joss, by first wife, Andrea Joss. Lives in Monte Carlo with third wife, Brazilian Otavia Jardim Kent, and their four-year-old twins (Geoffrey Jr. and Valerie).

HOBBIES: Played international high-goal polo. Loves scuba diving, skiing, wind surfing, tennis, and daily gym workout.

This interview has been edited and condensed.