Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) celebrated its 60th birthday in a big way.
The company, which operates luxury land, sea and air journeys on all seven continents, celebrated its anniversary this month by bringing back its biennial 100 Club Meeting, a three-day event in Chicago that brought A&K’s 100 top-producing travel agencies together with company executives, supplier sponsors and DMCs representing 30 countries around the world.
In addition to attending a general session, supplier breakout sessions and the World Marketplace tradeshow, attendees were given the chance to reconnect after the event’s four-year hiatus (the previous 100 Club Meeting was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak).
Two of the event’s attendees, Leslie Wahlgren and Steve Orens, represented Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Plaza Travel-Frosch at the event. Wahlgren said that after her 18-day honeymoon throughout France, Switzerland and Greece with A&K, she fell in love with the operator and ramped up her sales with them. She began selling heavily in July of 2021, and has since sold more than $250,000 in product. (Orens said that of the agency’s tour business, A&K makes up about 40-50% of bookings. This year, Frosch won A&K's award for being the top producer of a multi-branch agency.)
Besides her own firsthand experience, Wahlgren says she offers A&K to her luxury clients for two reasons: reliability and availability.
“One of the things the pandemic taught me was who was a reliable operator,” she said. “In those moments that you need someone on the ground to help your clients through [a situation], it makes a world of difference when you know your clients are going to be OK — and you’re also kept in the loop.”
Indeed, Abercrombie & Kent is well known for its top-of-the-line, bespoke service; its high-end, experiential style of touring operates in more than 100 countries across all seven continents. Despite some hiccups over the past few years that first led to an interruption in travel (during the early days of the pandemic) and later the suspension of all Russian itineraries due to the current war in Ukraine, the tour operator is pacing ahead of 2019 levels this year, and has more than 20 new programs slated for 2023.
A&K’s Pandemic-Era Developments and 2022 Travel Trends
In early 2020, Abercrombie & Kent opened a brand-new U.S. DMC office. Then, the pandemic hit. But, in the spirit of a message relayed from founder Geoffrey Kent at the 100 Club Meeting, the tour operator proudly took Winston Churchill’s advice — “Never let a good crisis go to waste” — to heart.
Like many companies, the tour operator chose to spend the pandemic retooling and reinventing its offerings to better serve both its travel partners and its customer base. When international travel borders closed, A&K introduced new Tailor Made Journeys in the American West, debuting the collection in May 2020.
It also launched new sales tools, refreshed its online blog and is currently piloting a new mobile app that travel advisors and clients can use to view their itineraries and final travel documents.
In the fourth quarter of 2020, A&K then resumed its international travel services, followed by new print brochures and direct mail in January 2021.
COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols
In the midst of the crisis, A&K also took advice given by its travel agent advisory board and created its “Book With Confidence Policy,” which gives more flexibility for clients who need to postpone or cancel trips. It also facilitates COVID-19 testing, is World Travel and Tourism Council-approved for Safe Travel and has a vaccination policy for all guest-facing staff.
Although the tour operator hasn’t fully resumed operations in all destinations, it’s currently operating in 80 countries — and is seeing sales spike to pre-pandemic levels.
In addition, bookings from groups of family and friends are up 25%, trips are longer, and guests are spending more, according to Keith Baron, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA.
New Itineraries Across the Globe for 2022 and Beyond
The tour operator has responded to pent-up demand caused by the pandemic by introducing new itineraries all over the world.
In 2023, advisors will have access to new Small Group Journeys, which encompass the Marco Polo Journeys, Connections Boutique Group Journeys, Wings Over the World (private air) Journeys and Luxury Small Group Journeys styles.
Some of the most popular offerings for 2023 include seeing the Northern Lights during the new Finland & Sweden Adventure Across Lapland journey; a relaxed-paced tour of Egypt with the new Pharaohs & Pyramids itinerary; and the Cultural Treasures and Wildlife Around the World private jet journeys, among many others. (For Wahlgren specifically, A&K’s Africa and Europe itineraries have been especially appealing to clients.)
Stefanie Schmudde, vice president of product development and operations, echoes the popularity of bucket-list trips and says African safaris and Europe continue to be in high demand, along with bucket-list destinations such as Egypt, Jordan, Australia and New Zealand. A&K is also introducing new Luxury Expedition Cruises for the 2023-2024 season (in partnership with Ponant), which will bring four new itineraries in Europe, Africa and across the South Pacific (from French Polynesia to Easter Island). One especially exciting highlight is the new Grand Mediterranean Voyage, which combines three existing cruises into one 28-day voyage.
“We have seen such strong interest in the Mediterranean this year — our Greece cruise quickly filled up — that we’ve planned a series of cruises next fall that can seamlessly be combined into one 28-day Grand Mediterranean Voyage,” said Bob Simpson, vice president of expedition cruising. “Beginning with a cruise along nearly the entire navigable coast of Italy, guests add our new Adriatic voyage to Croatia and Montenegro and then end with Greece and lesser-known gems, including Patmos, Delos and Syros.”
But the new offerings are enhanced by the company’s true “secret sauce,” according to Baron, which is the company’s local DMC operations across the globe that give travelers access to on-the-ground assistance 24/7. New DMC offices are currently slated to open in Saudi Arabia; Banff, Canada; and Colombia, and the company is targeting spots in the Americas, Southeast Asia and Africa for the future.
Russia, Europe Bookings and the War in Ukraine
A&K has suspended its Russia sales for the foreseeable future due to the war in Ukraine, and has rerouted expedition cruises and Wings Over the World journeys that pass through Russian waters and airspace. (A&K has never operated tours out of Ukraine.)
Interest in Eastern Europe saw a slight dip, but the rest of Europe has remained in high demand, with certain destinations in Western Europe in particular — namely, Italy and the Greek Isles — being especially appealing for travelers right now, said Andrew Gallagher, regional director of sales and marketing for Europe.
The last obstacle, he said, is the current rule that requires inbound COVID-19 testing within 24 hours before returning to the U.S.
“Demand has been massive, and once that [testing rule] goes away, the floodgates are going to be open,” he said.
Abercrombie & Kent