Geoffrey Kent – founder, chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent – on photographic safaris and sustainable tourism
WHAT I REALLY WANTED TO DO WAS HAVE THE THRILL OF THE HUNT… THE THRILL OF THE HUNT… BUT AT THE LAST MINUTE WE HAD THE CLICK OF A PHOTO AND NOT A DEAD ANIMAL
When he was still a teenager in the 1950’s, Geoffrey Kent went on an elephant hunt, shot one of the massive creatures and watched it die. It was the first and last time. We asked Geoffrey how this event led to his enormously successful enterprise being spawned.
I was born in Zambia, as my parents, who lived in Kenya, were there on a safari. I grew up in Kenya. In those days, one of the only things young Kenyan lads would do is go shooting. I went on my first elephant hunt and shot an elephant. I felt revolted and vowed never again. When I was at school, there was a famous hunting safari company called Ker & Downey, and that’s what all the kids wanted to do. Here, kids want to be lawyers or doctors, but there, all the kids wanted to be was a professional hunter. And to be a professional hunter took seven years of undergrad work with a professional.
When I turned 17, my father shipped me over to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and until I was 23 I was in the British military. When I returned to Nairobi, I wondered how I could compete with Ker & Downey who were so famous, so I thought to myself, “Why don’t we do photographic safaris?”. The problem was that while it was nice to take photos, you had to stay in these old self-help lodges, eating sardine out of tins. There was no ice, there was nothing. Of course, if you were out shooting, you’d be eating fresh game every day. So, what I really wanted to do was have the thrill of the hunt… the thrill of the hunt… but at the last minute we had the click of a photo and not a dead animal. That’s how the term “shoot with a camera, not with a gun” was spawned.
So, we needed to make a moving camp, but there was no ice, and no machines to make ice. I leveraged my military background in logistics to bring someone down and make an ice machine that we put in a big diesel truck. By this time, it was 1968. I always say with a great idea, you have to start with an idea, and going from zero to one can be very, very difficult; one to a thousand is easy. I waited until my parents were on vacation trekking the Khyber Pass and withdrew most of our savings from the bank – 5000 pounds sterling – and ordered new tents from Low & Bonar, china and crystal, and packed everything into custom-made trunks. The company quickly grew from nothing, was booked out solid, became bigger and bigger with more and more guides, and I took that concept everywhere to make Abercrombie & Kent what it is today. Now, instead of a diesel truck, we have a big private jet that goes around the world. But it’s still all about experiences! You focus in on the experience and make that the big focal point of the trip. Most people focus on the actual asset: the plane, or the food. While that’s very important, it’s secondary. On my last trip, I wanted to go to Base Camp Everest. People said we couldn’t do that, but we hired helicopters and did that and everyone loved it. It was a highlight that made the trip.
So, it all came from “shooting with a camera, not a gun”. How important is that concept or idea today as opposed to back then?
It’s much more important. I just wrote a long letter yesterday to Michael Gove (eds: British Member of Parliament, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the cabinet reshuffle on 11 June 2017), about elephants. We’re losing an elephant about every 25 minutes. There are anywhere between 20-35 thousand elephants killed a year. We are down to 440,000 elephants left in the world, and when I was born, there were probably several million. So, in the course of this interview, an elephant has been shot dead. Gone forever. And for what? Tigers are down to one thousand now. Ten years ago, they were down to three thousand, down from the hundreds of thousands there would have been when I was born.
With the figures going that way, one trend Matthew Upchurch from Virtuoso was talking about was that of people wanting to travel to see these animals before they’re gone forever. Is that making what you’re doing more significant?
At the rate we’re going, many will be gone in the next decades. For example, we are down to 20,000 white rhinos and only around two thousand black rhinos. We’re right down to the wire. It’s really serious.
If important people go with you to see these animals, surely that helps the cause?
Definitely it helps the cause. It’s a question of whether they understand. For Europeans, we’re bringing home to them that you have to have a situation in which it is illegal to import ivory of any kind or for any reason. It has to be rigid, and airlines should apply this as well. But it’s difficult, because we need to get all governments and airlines to join in. Emirates has already come out and refused to fly animal parts of any kind, and that’s the way it should be. If we don’t do something now, I believe that 2040 will be the telling year for many things, not the least of which will be climate change, which could really take off. I’ve been travelling to Antarctica since 1980. You couldn’t get around Ross Island then, and now you can cruise all around it. I’ve seen the changes that have happened in Greenland, with glaciers receding 1.5km every ten years. In 1987, base camp Everest was covered with snow. This time it was all gone. I went to the Great Barrier Reef in 1974, and now it’s well on the way to being completely ruined.
What is the Geoffrey Kent Safari Collection?
One of the interesting things is that when we sell a trip to the South Pole or some such, we have more questions from people asking about what to wear and what to take, so I decided to create my own collection. In previous years, we have supplied some Geoffrey Kent Collection items to people on the ‘round the world by private jet trip. There was an amenities set, eye mask for sleeping on board and so on.
Now we have gone deeper into it, for example when we go to see the Northern Lights we have proper down jackets that are water and weather resistant, specifically tailor made for the trips. There will be two lines under the Geoffrey Kent Safari brand: the elitist line, and then the secondary line, which is the GKS brand which is a bit more trendy. I figure I know travel; I know what fits and what doesn’t fit. We needed to design something that was very simplistic, that fits well and yet is elegant. Other things we have thought of include a special zip compartment on the side of the bag so you can put your dirty shoes or wet swimmers in there.
All the baggage manufacturers will probably want to copy that.
That’s one of the problems with life today is that everyone copies you.
It’s the best form of flattery.
Yes, but I hate that. I hate being flattered!
When people talk about global trends in luxury tourism, it’s said that they are more and more looking for “experiences”. That must be good for your business.
We were the ones who started experiential travel – with safaris. One of the problems always in the early days was that it could be dangerous. And we had one or two close calls, but since then, we’ve been “throttling back” a bit. You always have to control what I call the “last mile”. And you do that by having the best guides on earth. It doesn’t matter what you sit down and plan at the end of the day. That’s why I own all of my own companies. We very seldom sub-contract to a third party. It’s all about the last mile, and the client has to be as safe as humanly possible at all times. So how do you do that? We build all of our own Land Rovers in Kenya and Tanzania. We have strict regulations and controls on whatever we do. We have always produced experiences. Now everyone is copying it, and everybody, whether they have a shop, a restaurant or a hotel in town, they say “we produce experiences”; so everything has become experiential travel. That’s what people want to do.
When did you come up with the idea of taking people around the world on a private jet and how did it come to fruition?
It started about five years ago. I had done a lot of private jet trips over the past 30 years, for example with Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney and DreamWorks fame, using a G4, G5 or G6. At one time, he had eight days and wanted to see all of South America. We had helicopters, flying boats and so on, and it was a complete success. Then I thought the amount of effort that went into that for four or six people – which was amazing – why not do that for a bigger group? And that’s what started the idea. We got hold of this big 757-200ER jet – the extended range model. Then we had to put in all flatbed seats, because our clients want flatbed seats. Then there’s the food and wine, which has to be incredible, so we travel with a food and beverage guy. Then after one incident, we realised it was always better to have a doctor with us as well; so it becomes like a circus. You have to have a team who creates amazing experiences. You cannot have an experience that anyone else can buy.
Do you have any examples?
In Samarkand, we took over the whole of Registan Square, and shipped in a 105-piece orchestra from Tashkent on a special plane. They played to us during an incredible dinner under the full moon and everyone was crying, it was so beautiful. In the middle of the Gobi Desert, we shipped acrobats and wonderful singers in from Ulan Bator by special plane, and they performed at night under a sky dotted with brilliant stars. Obviously if you go to the Gobi Desert you’re not going to find acrobats there, so you have to use planes to bring them in and create the experience.
In Armenia, we went to the base of Mount Ararat, which incidentally looks just like Kilimanjaro. We got up at dawn, and watched the sunrise over Mount Ararat. All of us were given a dove, and we released them all together as a sign of peace. It was very moving.
We flew to Base Camp Everest, which was amazing. We took helicopters to a remote part of Borneo and went to track Orang-utans, and it was incredible as well – despite the leeches!
What makes your ‘round the world private jet tours so unique?
I didn’t want to do it like the others, who do it as inexpensively as possible. They take a circle around the world, and that’s where they go. Our itinerary is an incredible zig-zag as we go to places with limited commercial service. You can’t go to Tasmania unless you go via Sydney or Melbourne. We went to Sri Lanka, we went to the Komodo islands to see the Komodo Dragons; it really is a huge adventure. Every year I do one ‘round the world trip in 25 days, and then I do one or two great adventures – that take ten to twelve days. This year coming up, we’re going to do one to the South Pole, visiting the Emperor Penguins, and that literally sold out in about 24 hours at US$180,000 each – but it has private planes, private everything. The one to see the Northern Lights sold out immediately too.
What are your thoughts on sustainable tourism?
I have mammoth, never-ending, bursting thoughts. One of my key projects was in Uganda. I met with President Yoweri Museveni, who promised when he became president to turn the Bwindi region into a national park. I guaranteed to him that I would pay for the scientists to come in to work with the Gorillas, and to build a lodge. There was nothing there back then. Abercrombie &Kent pays around one point three million dollars a year in fees, and we bring in about 15-20 million dollars a year. This is the most important factor in sustainable tourism: the money has to go to the people where the animals live (eds: slapping table). Not the government, not the county council… but the people; the ones who actually live there. And that’s the hardest part. We have been pouring in money for a local hospital where there was none before. Now we have 30,000 outpatients a year, we have a surgery, we have cut infant fatalities by between 50% and 60%. We built a school… and it’s all been a huge, huge success. All because I had that idea with the President of Uganda 28 years ago. When we came along there were 330 gorillas. Today there are 407. That represents over half the gorillas left in the world. Our commitment to sustainable tourism has saved over 50% of the world’s mountain gorillas.
It all comes back to shooting with a camera, not with a gun. You bring people in to shoot the gorillas with their cameras, they bring in much needed funds that all go to the local people. It’s win-win-win.
What can be done in the years to come?
We have to find out where the last of these endangered animals are, whether it’s whale sharks off the Philippines, or the orang-utans in Borneo, and you have to raise soft money – that is to say investment from people who don’t expect an immediate return, to create the infrastructure and logistics, to build properties in key areas. Unless you build the properties, you won’t get the clients, and most people will never build a property because they want a return on their investment, and you’ll never get a return on investment, because the infrastructure isn’t there. That’s the problem. We should find where the last snow leopards are and build a place to go and see snow leopards. What about tigers? Or black rhinos? I want to spend much more of my time doing that. It’s the only thing that can protect them. I enjoy that. To look at what I have achieved with the gorillas, it’s amazing. Sustainable tourism has to be the future. Look at it this way… Why have we not lost a gorilla in 25 years to poaching? The people living there who benefit from tourism won’t allow it to happen! It’s so obvious. It all comes back to shooting with a camera, not with a gun. You bring people in to shoot the gorillas with their cameras, they bring in much needed funds that all go to the local people. It’s win-win-win. And out of those tourism dollars, you build hospitals, schools, and protect the habitat the animals need to survive.
Photo: Geoffrey Kent – Founder, Chairman & CEO, Abercrombie and Kent