Last updated: 03:58 PM ET, Sun July 17 2016

A&K's Experiential Evolution

Programs put the spotlight more on adventure and less on 700-thread-count sheets

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | Theresa Norton

A&K's Experiential Evolution

[PHOTOCAPTION]PHOTO: Geoffrey Kent's "Inspiring Expedition by Private Jet" will visit Paro, Bhutan, home of the Taktsang Palphug Monastery.[/PHOTOCAPTION]

Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), the storied luxury tour company, has seen business soar 72 percent over the past four years and is taking steps to continue the growth.

“Overall last year was the best year ever in the history of A&K USA,” Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, told top-producing travel agents at the 100 Club meeting held in May at The American Club resort in Kohler, Wis.

Evolving with the times, A&K is offering what today’s travelers want, which increasingly is more about adventure and less about 700-thread-count sheets. “The new luxury is not about thread count,” he told agents. “It’s about swimming with sharks, learning about different cultures, and understanding the different ways of life and the world.”

Later, in an interview with Vacation Agent, he elaborated.

“A&K stands out as the luxury company in our market, and I think that luxury is pretty well defined by A&K,“ Otterson said. “It’s been defined by the kinds of accommodations we use and the kind of vehicles we use, brick-and-mortar sorts of things, but it’s an evolving thing. Today, it’s being defined by the kinds of experiences that one has. In our opinion, the more authentically engaged an experience is, the more luxe it is as well.”

For example, Otterson said, on the company’s high-end private jet trips travelers are accommodated in lie-flat seats upholstered in luxurious leather with top-notch service, outstanding cuisine and fine wines served by a sommelier. But when they get to Papua New Guinea or other off-the-beaten-path destinations, the accommodations might not be at the same level of luxury.

“There aren’t Four Seasons hotels everywhere. But the experience really is all about the plane and what happens when you get off that plane,” Otterson said. “You walk to the plane, and experience the luxury of not being in a line behind hundreds of people. Our private jet is all luxury, so I think it’s okay that we redefine it some way, and call it a luxurious experience even if the thread count isn’t what it usually is.”

READ MORE: The Reinvention of Luxury: One-on-One with A&K's Phil Otterson

Another way in which A&K is taking adventurous luxury travelers to emerging destinations is through its Connections Worldwide Group Journeys, which launched in 2012 at prices about 30 percent less than its traditional luxury products.

Connections is being tweaked to focus more on boutique experiences, and the relaunch is expected in August. The name will change to Connections Boutique Small Group Journeys and will focus on boutique hotels, experiences, dining and group size. For example, the company will choose hotels that are smaller and centrally located in neighborhoods with local character. Many will tend to be locally owned and operated, and reflect the local culture.

The boutique theme will extend to local experiences and dining to enable guests to go further and deeper into a destination. For instance, when visiting Seville, Spain, most itineraries will include a flamenco experience. Connections, however, will offer a flamenco performance in a private home, to make it a more intimate and authentic experience.

While exotic places are often visited by the private jet journeys, Connections also will visit emerging destinations that might not yet have the luxury infrastructure traditionally offered by A&K.

“The metamorphosis into a boutique offering is really exciting for us, but it also tells us we can offer a different product line in Cuba or Iran or Ethiopia, where there might not be luxury five-star properties everywhere you go,” said Otterson. “Connections can also serve as a product line that accommodates guests from the same luxury travel agent who want to have an experience of going to a destination that may not always be luxury.”

Otterson noted that in the past, A&K would not have offered programs to such destinations as Cuba because the luxury level wasn’t there – thereby confusing consumers about the company’s identity as an upscale brand.

“But now, through the education of travel agents by us and the education of clients by travel agents, [travel advisors] can explain that Connections by A&K allows for going to emerging destinations that may not have the infrastructure a client normally enjoys in five-star destinations in Europe and Asia,” he said. “We want to be cutting-edge and will offer the best of what is available. We want to be in Cuba and want to be one of the first in Iran. We don’t want to hold back from emerging destinations.”

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the July 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.