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Icons & Innovations: Abercrombie & Kent: Sights, Cameras, Action

Scott Goetz & Richard Wiese

Sitting at the Long Bar of the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1962, John and Valerie Kent and their son, Geoffrey, devised a radical concept. “We decided to hunt animals with cameras instead of guns,” recalls Geoffrey, who that year founded travel company Abercrombie & Kent with his British-born parents. “In 1962, it was very macho and a sign of a good trip to return from shooting elephants in deepest Tanzania covered in mud and having a filthy Land Rover. But I realized my clients would not be impressed by filth; they wanted cleanliness and binoculars.”

The Kent family’s concept of clean, hunting-free outings proved challenging to execute in the remote regions of Africa where they were based. Because their clients shot film, not bullets, the Kents were confronted with a logistical problem: Safaris typically relied on hunting for the party’s food (known as “shooting for the pot”). Geoffrey, who became managing director of Abercrombie & Kent when his parents retired in 1967, addressed this issue by working with engineers to design a portable refrigeration system that could transport fresh meat and fruits—even caviar and chilled Chablis—for his clients as they stalked their photographic prey days away from civilization.

Kent’s invention introduced a new level of convenience and sophistication to the safari experience, as did his approach to staffing and service. No infrastructure existed in the early 1960s to support the safaris Kent envisioned, and so he built his own by training locals on the intricacies of catering to an affluent clientele. Because excursions at the time lasted for nearly 30 days, Kent’s instruction included unexpected lessons. “The guides would begin to have unpleasant smells,” he says. “I began a school where they learned charm and manners, and I slipped in body hygiene. They would be graded on a one-to-three scale, and a one meant more money and prestige. It wasn’t long before they smelled delicious.”

Despite their sophisticated slant, Kent’s safaris were not without their risks. “We spent a lot of focus taking the danger out of the fantasy,” says Kent, “but it took some learning [on our part].” On an A&K safari in 1967, the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Kenya nearly stepped on a puff adder. “I looted off both barrels at her feet and killed it,” recalls Kent. “If I hadn’t been there with my gun, it was sure to have killed her. I then learned that it wasn’t a good idea for my clients to be walking around outside of camp, so now we don’t allow it.”

In 1971, Kent met his future business partner and wife, Jorie Butler Kent, in Oak Brook, Ill. The two since have grown A&K, now based in Oak Brook, into the world’s leading luxury travel operator. Working with a vast network of regional offices and local guides, the company offers family-oriented trips, villa rentals, custom private-jet journeys, and safe, clean, camera-friendly safaris and escorted tours to more than 100 countries on all seven continents.

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Photo by Dana Allen
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky