From Juno Beach to Vimy Ridge, travel organizer Liberation Tours traces the footsteps of Canadian soldiers through the landmarks of Europe.
As countries begin to relax pandemic restrictions, travellers are eager to book beachside vacations and weekend getaways after a prolonged period at home. While most trips are bought online in a few clicks, things at Liberation Tours are done a bit differently. The one-of-a-kind tour operator plans trips to European landmarks significant to Canadian military history, like battlefields and memorials, but fully customizes their voyages based on each visitor’s interest or family history. That means rather than simply adding a vacation package to an online cart, travellers can spend hours on the phone with co-founders John Cannon and Phil Craig, who then devote even more time to researching military records, old news reports and more. The result? A completely unique adventure for each guest.
The small business began nearly two decades ago when the duo created a military museum in Keswick, Ontario. Patrons began asking to join the two history buffs on battlefield trips and the business was born. With borders now open, they’re already booking spots well into 2025 with tours to Italy, France, Holland and more. “These are places John and I love to visit. And from the bottom of our hearts, we enjoy sharing our feelings, discoveries and insights with people,” explains Craig. “That’s what motivates us, that’s what drives us.”
The travel niche: Can specialized tourism have broad appeal?
Specialized travel is increasingly popular, with many companies tailoring trips to photography, cooking and other hobbies. There are actually numerous tour operators focused on WWI and WWII history, some with dozens of year-round trips and global staff members. While Cannon and Craig have increased their offerings over the years, they are ironically limited by their main selling point: themselves.
Both plan and guide each tour personally and have only ever missed a single trip each. “We have travelled extensively around the world, but nothing quite compares to this personal journey,” reads one of the team’s five-star reviews. “Your attention to detail was over the top. Each of you made every traveller feel very special.”
Roam like home: The need for 24/7 availability
As a small business working from a home-based office, the pair’s mobile devices are critical lifelines to customers as well as overseas vendors, contractors and each other. Cannon recalls the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, where tens of thousands gathered to mark the milestone in France. Because of security concerns and a larger-than-expected crowd, event details were only revealed at the last minute. “We received everything about 36 hours ahead of time, in the middle of the night. We had no time to assess logistics. Our phones were the critical link that ensured a successful tour.”
For ease, the team always uses Roam Like Home from Rogers for Business to maintain the same capability, flexibility and phone number whether they’re in the middle of Paris or the small city of Groesbeek in the Netherlands. The reliable feature is also key for connecting with potential customers, who often prefer to book trips after chatting through the details.
The non-marketing marketing plan: The power of “word-of-mouth”
Interestingly, a good chunk of travellers have no direct or family connection to the military and many are reluctant spouses of history-loving partners. However, these often end up the most enthralled by the locations, along with Craig’s engaging storytelling. As a professional actor with numerous film credits, Craig relishes the opportunity to share his deep passion for history. In fact, the duo’s infectious enthusiasm and personal approach leave a lasting impact on their customers. “Most people come back from a resort or cruise and think about it maybe for a month or two,” explains Cannon, “But our travellers are still talking about their tours years later! We still receive emails from clients long after their trip. They become champions for our business.”
Finding humour in history: Bringing stories to life
Part of the team’s appeal is their humourous take on what is an unequivocally solemn subject. They pair historical facts with more personal stories and recollections from real veterans, some gathered directly from former customers. One such guest, a 94-year-old WWII medic, shared memories of his time in the service as a young man and joked about fellow soldiers. “It’s a great honour for us,” says Craig, on veterans who book tours. “They’re real-life heroes.”
Unlike other tour guides, the pair are never really off the clock–not that they’re complaining. After a day of guided sightseeing, they look forward to relaxing with their guests and eagerly listening to their impressions. It’s likely why they’ve had so many repeat customers, with some taking nearly every tour they offer. “After every trip we turn to each other and ask, ‘Is that the best group we’ve ever had?’ But then we guide our next tour and realize that every group of guests is as good as the other! It never gets old.”