PHOTO: Abercrombie & Kent's new President Keith Baron. (photo courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)
Keith Baron took the helm of Abercrombie & Kent USA April 3, succeeding Phil Otterson, the previous president, after serving more than five years as senior vice president of strategic operations.
Baron brings 30 years of travel industry experience to the job. He started as a tour director and worked in practically every aspect of the tour industry, including sales, as a product manager, in marketing and in operations. He was also a partner in his own business, Cragmont Baron, a travel consultation service.
TravelPulse: How would you say luxury travel has evolved from 30 years ago when luxury was mostly about creature comforts?
Keith Baron: Back then, whether it was the marketing, or the delivery, it was always focused on the physically tangible elements. What car am I going to drive? What hotel am I going to stay in? What class of service am I going to receive on the flight or the rail journey?
Today that’s all part of the base expectation. That must be delivered. That is given.
Luxury today has moved beyond that. It is also about ensuring travel is authentic, which means having experiences that are true to a particular place and its traditions, making sure that elements of local culture are imbedded in the experiences, bringing our travelers as close as possible to a place in terms of its personality as much as its sights.
It’s those things that are beyond the basic luxury trappings that expand the overall experience and drive deeper into authenticity in a flexible and an assured way.
Today more than ever, luxury is time dependent. People’s time is more pressed and pressured than ever. So when they have time to focus on themselves and enjoy a holiday, it’s very important that we ensure not only that we are consistently delivering the luxury elements, but that we do it in such a way that there is depth provided so that they can take away from that experience much more than they might have even a few years ago.
For me, luxury means that yes, you’ve got all the physical aspects of what we have all understood that luxury provides, but it is also the privilege of new discovery, new adventure, new in-depth insights coupled with the right amount of relaxation as personalized for every traveler’s own interests.
TP: Is that the rationale behind A&K’s Connections series of small-group experiences?
KB: Yes it is, though that product has morphed over time since its introduction five years ago. We’ve turned it into Connections Boutique Group Journeys, given it a new name. It has been very successful for us, but we have adjusted the products in a very positive, transformational way. We now focus on all boutique types of experiences with the intent of immersing travelers in local life.
TP: What are your most popular destinations this year?
KB: It’s interesting that we’ve seen the resurgence that we have in Europe. We saw some softness last year as a result of terrorism and some geopolitical situations. However Europe has bounced back very nicely for us. And a lot of the destinations that were hurting last year have seen a resurgence, and we’re happy for that.
TP: How is your Cuba business going?
KB: It has leveled off over recent months. Our cruises this year did extremely well, and they sold out. Our cruises are delivered similarly to how we deliver our land product, and that is consistent with the U.S. people to people requirements.
Cruising has done extremely well this year for us in Cuba, but the land programs have leveled off. We haven’t seen the growth that we’ve seen in the previous couple years, perhaps because there are a number of different opportunities now for people to access and visit on their own. And when I say “on their own,” obviously they still need to comply with U.S. law when they visit. A&K is very good at making sure that is maintained.
There has also been some new-build in Cuba, limited but some, which expands opportunity for A&K particularly because some of the new hotels are of a higher quality. So we’re looking forward to the opening of various new properties there.
It is interesting to have seen some of the airlines go in there with guns blazing and virtually all of them pull back, and some pull out completely from Cuba. I think that is indicative that there was an initial excitement and a certain growth and then a leveling off all around.
TP: Has some of your land business moved to sea programs?
KB: Some of it has moved from land to sea, but overall it’s very limited growth. It’s a good solid base that we’ve now realized in Cuba overall, but it has definitely slowed.
TP: How is business in Africa?
KB: Africa is doing very well for us, and that is so important to A&K because that is where our company began, and our heritage is in Africa. East Africa is doing very well. South Africa is doing well. We’ve overcome a period of time where people had some concerns about traveling to Africa for health reasons two years ago, but we’ve seen recovery from that and Africa is doing quite well for us.
The experience, as always, is extraordinary. What we deliver there is something no one else can provide, based on our background and history going back to our founding in 1962 in Kenya.
TP: Are you developing any new destinations in Africa?
KB: We have seen good growth in Tanzania and Kenya. We have seen some in interest in Ethiopia, for example. But really the growth we’ve seen is in the places where A&K has had its successes in the past, which are back and in full swing.
There are places in Africa that are new and emerging and can be exciting. But for the vast number of travelers who are interested in visiting Africa, the established places are so well put together in terms of the experience delivery that we know very confidently that whenever anybody travels with A&K to Africa they are going to come home entirely happy. The experience is there, the value is there, and I would venture to say that for those people who have not visited Africa before, those primary destinations are still the primary destinations. For people who have visited two or three times, we can put them together with tremendous expertise.
For those who have traveled for the first time on safari to South Africa, or Botswana, or East Africa, the next time they visit they’ll visit another primary African destination for another time or two before they venture into something less charted.
Uganda is something that A&K has delivered for a very long time. And the gorilla trekking experience is extraordinary. The experience for many people can be life changing. And that’s why these and other African safaris stay at the top of the list.
TP: How is A&K’s business in the Middle East?
KB: Egypt has always been a very important part of A&K’s business. After the Arab Spring, things became very challenging, and there has been a period of unsettled times when people were not ready to go back. But at the same time there is no place on earth like Egypt.
Now, we’ve seen tremendously positive growth in Egypt over the last year. This year’s numbers are very encouraging. And for our business when Egypt grows Jordan has a tendency to grow.
TP: Although A&K is known for its escorted tours, your business is now equally reliant on independent travel. How is that evolving?
KB: Our Tailor Made product is central to A&K’s success. The Tailor Made experience underlines what A&K can do for our guests and travel agents alike, and that is we can virtually build anything anywhere. In places that may not be viable for some companies because they can’t deliver numbers, it might still be viable for A&K because we have expertise in independent travel. Group and independent travel are equally important to our company. And we’ve seen excellent growth in both areas.
TP: How is business in Latin America and Asia?
KB: Asia remains quite strong. We’ve seen a little softness in South America, against our own projections. We had thought we would deliver higher, so while there is growth it’s a little softer than we anticipated this year.
TP: Do you attribute it to the Zika scare or the Olympics, or what?
KB: It’s so hard to know when we ask ourselves these questions. You’d think with Zika out of the press in most respects that it would have moved on by now. The interesting thing is South America is still presenting a really good value to travelers.
We just anticipated that after the previous softness in the market, there would be more significant growth. We haven’t taken a downturn. It’s more that we expected it to bounce back more effectively. No doubt it will return to a larger annualized growth. The growth is there, just not as large as we anticipated.
TP: How is your Luxury Expedition Cruising program faring?
KB: That is really A&K’s sweet spot in the world of cruising. We believe we are the foremost expedition cruise company. We’ve had a history in Antarctica that is extraordinary. And we’ve grown beyond Antarctica to many other places. We are cruising the Arctic. We’ve done the Northwest Passage for the last couple of years and will do again this year.
There is the luxury element with the ship and the food and so on. But it’s much more than that. It is delivering an expedition in a very in-depth and very expert way. No one that delivers Antarctica the way A&K does. We staff every vessel with our own expedition staff. It’s usually 16 staff members in addition to what the ship provides in terms of their staff.
The expedition staff includes habitat experts, conservationists, historians, wildlife photographers, research scientists. We bring in staff that is intimate with every area we visit, with years and years of experience. And truly these are life changing experiences, and for most people once-in a-lifetime experiences.
Our guests come back extraordinarily pleased. When it comes to luxury expedition cruising, we feel like we own this space because we couple luxury with real expedition. We have great levels of experience and expertise in that.