Since the age of 16, Geoffrey Kent has had one vision: adventure by day, security and luxury by night. The founder and co-chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, and Monaco resident, has achieved more in one lifetime than many of us could only dream of.
From his home in the south of Brazil where he is riding out the crisis with family, Geoffrey Kent spoke to Monaco Life about how his company reacted when Covid-19 hit, what luxury travellers should be considering in future adventures, and why 2021 will be the year of the bucket list.
Monaco Life: Throughout your many years in the luxury travel industry, have you experienced anything like the crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Geoffrey Kent: I started Abercrombie & Kent in 1962 and I have been through many revolutions, epidemics and catastrophes. But this one is different. This is SARS, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Depression all rolled into one. This pandemic is a disaster for the travel and tourism industry to date.
When and how did you react?
I knew this was coming. I didn’t know it was going to be as bad as this, but I knew it was going to be bad. So literally within weeks we scaled back the company to bare operating level and myself and senior management all took large pay cuts. The intention was to keep the company running on bare bones, so our top staff could remain. We have done this in the past – with 9/11 and SARS – and we have always been able to pay the money back eventually. As a result, we are able to still have 55 offices all around the world continue operating through telecommunication.
Finally, some green shoots are starting to appear, and I think travel will come back when they find a vaccine or cure, particularly on an international basis.
The problem is there are different countries with different rules, so New Zealand is saying they may only open the border with Australia, the UK is applying a quarantine… everyone will be relying on travel information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). When people do decide to travel, they will definitely travel locally to begin with.
Given the lockdowns, there are suggestions that 2021 is going to be the year of the bucket list adventure. Do you think that this crisis will give people the motivation to finally travel to places they always wanted to go, but never found the time or opportunity?
Yes, because we just don’t know if another pandemic is hiding around the corner. So if there is a gap, people are going to want to see the things they have always dreamt of seeing. How can you possibly live on this earth and not see the pyramids, for example? By the way, I think people would be very foolish to simply book their trips online, because if something like this happens again when they are on holiday, they have to consider how they are going to return home.
So how did A&K react when the crisis hit?
As soon as it happened, we were able to get 100% of our clients home and safe. We immediately chartered jets and had our companies on the ground (we cover 135 countries) working around the clock to get these people back. So, I think some will be saying: “Yes, I want to go there in 2021, but what if something happens again? How do I get home? What if I catch something? Who will take care of me?” These feelings of fear will become the elephant in the room.
Was it a challenge to get everyone home? As the founder of the company did you feel responsible for the safety of everyone?
Myself and my partner Manfredi Lefebvre are both from Monaco, and of course we had a huge responsibility. Many of our clients are our personal friends, so we moved within days to get everybody back. We worked with our three tour operating businesses – A&K Australia, A&K America and A&K UK, and all our 55 ground operating companies. Because we own everything, we were able to get everybody back very quickly – we didn’t have to go to any board of directors for approval. We just said: “Right, let’s get everybody home, now.”
Have you learnt anything from the lockdown?
I have been doing this since 1962 and I don’t think I learned too much from a business perspective. It’s an exaggerated form of the 9/11 and SARS crises that we went through. But what I did learn from a personal perspective is that being locked down with my family has been a silver lining. Usually I travel 287 days a year, so I have never had this luxury.
The global luxury travel ecosystem, valued at 1.54 trillion, provides employment for around 62 million people and generates tourism taxes that go back into local communities and fuel business opportunities for travel providers. Do you agree that the contribution of luxury travel to the recovery of so many economies, businesses and families cannot be overstated?
Absolutely. 10% of the world’s employment comes from travel and tourism; 10% of the world’s GDP comes from travel and tourism, it is essential. People who make cheese, sell flowers, operate taxis… they are all affected and so many have lost their jobs and livelihoods.
The airline industry is also a major concern. We have never seen this before. We have always had airlines, they are your main bridge to tourism, but now the industry is in jeopardy.
Another thing that worries me is nobody is in the nature reserves and parks now protecting endangered species from poaching. Five rhinos were killed just recently because no one is watching them in Botswana, South Africa, Kenya. Who is going to pay all the game wages? The are no fees from tourism to support the government.
If I had never been to Africa before, this is the first place I would go to start reinjecting money where it is desperately needed.
Do you see any luxury travel trends emerging over the next six to 12 months?
I think people will travel to where it is safest, so Australia and the Australasia area, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea. I think Americans will definitely stay around the Americas and when they do venture out, it will be in places like South America.
Europeans might be a bit more adventurous and go to Africa, or see some of the rarer parts of Europe by helicopter perhaps, as well as the islands – Seychelles, Maldives, Caribbean. Also, cold places like Iceland and the Poles are becoming very popular.
I think people will want adventure. The high thread count sheets and Dom Pérignon when you enter a room is over. People still want exotic, beautiful suites and wonderful food, but nothing ridiculous. The expense will be in having great local guides to teach you as much as possible so you can return home with an experience that you will never forget.
The future is going to be tailor-made travel and people will want to travel with their families and share their experiences together. The great thing about A&K is what I call the ‘A&K cocoon’. So you book in America, you come to Africa, and you are always being taken care of in this cocoon without ever knowing it is around you.
What is next for Geoffrey Kent?
I have my own trips that I am organising, which I call ‘Inspiring Expeditions by Geoffrey Kent’, with my wife Otavia, and I am going to kick off as soon as we can. I’ll probably do a private wing safari within the Americas which could include Alaska. I am also putting one together for Australia, especially the Kimberlie, and New Zealand. I would also love to do one around France, perhaps driving a Ferrari to all the best places in the country. And of course, I would also love to do Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and maybe Mozambique. It will be something simple, unusual and exotic.
To follow Geoffrey Kent’s adventures, follow him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/geoffrey_kent/
Read about the story behind Geoffrey Kent in our article here:
Interview: Geoffrey Kent, founder of Abercrombie & Kent, on how it all began