The Reinvention of Luxury: One on One with Abercrombie & Kent’s Phil Otterson

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In the 21st century, the old definition of luxury is no longer large enough to contain what luxury travel has become. As creature comforts and luxurious goods become more generally accessible and therefore less rare and exclusive, those who want something that goes beyond the ordinary must look beyond the realm of things and to the realm of experience. Because of this shift, adventure has moved to the center of the luxury travel experience.

Abercrombie & Kent was founded in 1962 by Geoffrey Kent and his parents in Nairobi, Kenya. The company was one of the first safari outfitters offering trips into the East Africa wilderness to American travelers. A&K grew to be one of the largest, most prestigious tour operators in the world. Its name became almost synonymous with luxury. But wilderness adventure was its first offering more than 50 years ago.

TravelPulse asked Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, for his views about the changing concept of luxury.

TravelPulse: We seem to be seeing a shift in how luxury travel is defined. Do you think that is true?

Phil Otterson: Yes, it is. We’ve been doing this 50-some years. We feel like we invented the whole luxury-adventure travel segment with our tent and silver ice bucket back in 1962. We kind of own that.

Now at A&K we have this new thing: Inspiring Expeditions, which illustrates what luxury has evolved into.

TP: Geoffrey Kent described the product as taking intrepid travelers to the most unexplored areas accessible only by private jet led by professional explorers. Can you tell us more?

PO: Inspiring Expeditions is the brainchild of [A&K Chairman] Geoffrey Kent. The way it came about was that Geoff’s been going on these trips with our guests for many years. He goes on one or two a year and has been doing it for a long time. So he’s sitting around with these people in some exotic location and they are saying, “Where are we going to go next?” He got the idea to create a new product line called Inspiring Expeditions by Geoffrey Kent.

The first one is departing in the fall. It’s called Treasures of Palau. It meets in Hong Kong, where you’ll stay at the Peninsula Hotel and board the private jet for Palau. The idea actually took root in Monte Carlo.

READ MORE: Abercrombie & Kent Scores Hit with Boutique Private Jet Tours

TP: Why Monte Carlo?

PO: Geoff lives in Monte Carlo most the time. It is the home of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Monte Carlo is a small place, and the people who live there all know each other. Geoff got to talking with Jacques Cousteau’s people at the museum and decided to recreate Jacques Cousteau’s expedition to Palau. He wanted to recreate the diving experience, and really up the ante on the luxury factor, combined with adventure, with private chefs, and diving instructors who are world renowned.

It costs $145,000 per person. The first one is going in fall this year. It starts in Hong Kong, where you take a private jet to Palau, spend time there.

We have another Inspiring Adventure in March 2017 going to the Northern Lights called the Light and Soul of the Arctic. It’s another example of that new kind of luxury being defined by experience as much as anything else.

It’s not just about thread count. It’s about the privilege of discovery and the insight, the adventure of traveling with someone like Geoff. Geoff is a very gregarious guy. He has traveled more than anyone I ever met by factor of 10. He has been able to engage our guests in such a way that it creates a unique experience for them.

TP: How is the definition of luxury different for a tour operator than for a hotelier?

PO: We understand what a Four Seasons is versus a Sheraton or Westin. We understand the importance of thread count. But that’s almost a given with us.

We’re not afraid to go beyond that at times to create a better experience. We think about the experience first. And sometimes on the private jet trips, we might stay at a place that isn’t a five star hotel, like the hotel in Papua New Guinea, because of the experience of being with native Papua New Guineans.

READ MORE: Abercrombie & Kent Expands Connections Series for 2016 with Cuba and Italy Programs

For example, we have a Sanctuary Retreat called Chief’s Camp and we’re putting in a million plus dollars to renovate that place. It’s only a few rooms, but it’s really going to be absolutely luxurious.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s also about what are we going to do when go there. And it’s all about the extra awesome things that one can do in the Okavango Delta that involve animals and safaris and unusual experiences dining out there and so on.

It is about a luxury experience as defined by things people do along the way and the interaction they have with the native people, understanding their customs and song and dress and the way they interact with their environment and all that sort of that thing. It’s very interesting and boy, people have a great time.

Thinking of experiential travel and the extra things you can do, a lot of our competitors canceled their trips to Cuba during President Obama’s trip and we didn’t. We had a lot of meetings about that. We offered to let our guests opt out, but they didn’t. We went to each and every one of our guests and told them, “You are going to have to stay outside Havana. If you want to change the date, fine.” But they didn’t.

And those people who went had an extraordinary experience of being there during a very historical time and having experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

We don’t know why our competitors canceled. It was probably because they said when Obama was in Cuba you can’t stay in Havana in this hotel, you have to stay an hour and a half out of Havana in that hotel.

And it was not as it is published. I think a lot of operators say, “I published this and I can’t produce it that way so maybe I won’t do it.”

We took the tack that this is really a historic moment. People will be able to say, “I saw the President pass by,” or, “I was there when the President came. They closed off different parts of the city where he was there and we couldn’t stay in the hotel where we were supposed to stay because he was there. But we were there.”

We said, “Let’s still give this experience to our guests.” They were overwhelmed by the experience, and very pleased that we continued, in spite of the fact that it was not as it was published. You can be over cautions or you can be adventurous.