Silver Lining Tours
This couple lives for Mother Nature’s unpredictable disposition
Photos Courtesy of The Silver Lining Tours
You could say that Roger and Caryn Hill literally have their heads in the clouds. But, it’s not that they are unaware of what is happening in their business. It’s quite the contrary. As proprietors of Silver Lining Tours, the world’s second-largest storm-chasing tour company, they have dedicated their lives to getting storm chasing down to a science.
They know exactly where to take people to witness Mother Nature’s fury – at times, tornados. In 2013, the husband and wife team bought the 17-year-old booming business and found that being business owners is akin to chasing storms: unpredictable, fast-moving, and enormously fulfilling.
“Learning the business was baptism by fire. We became fast learners on things like QuickBooks, along with trying to maintain the company’s customer service standards,” explains Caryn, who not only helps manage the company's business end but also goes “out in the field” with tour groups.
Between April and August every year, the Hills lead up to 12 tours, spanning from south Texas to the Canadian Prairies and Colorado to Indiana. Tours usually comprise two or three vans, a driver, Roger or Caryn, and six tourists per van. And six times a year, avid photographers join Silver Lining photography tours. “We just talk photography the whole time,” says Caryn. “Then we provide resources the group can use to sell their prints; some have sold photographs for $10,000 a print.” But Caryn says, “We are storm chasers first.”
WHY STORM CHASING?
It’s their pure passion for witnessing storm structures. Roger has chased storms for 29 years. So far, he’s chased 750 tornados, “and he’s so relentless about it that he’ll chase down a rain drop if he can,” says Caryn.
Caryn is becoming a veteran, too, with 11 years of experience. Roger was a tour guide when Caryn joined him in storm chasing. But Caryn identified future opportunities for growth. She believed he could eventually become a partner and buy the business one day, and with her marketing background, make storm chasing more than just a hobby.
“The name ‘Silver Lining Tours’ stems from the idea that we look for clouds and since every cloud has a silver lining, that comes with it too,” says Caryn, explaining that the name fits because there are challenges and benefits to storm chasing. Even when storms don’t materialize, clients still leave having had a great time. “That has branded the business as being reliable, even when Mother Nature isn’t.”
· Traditional “old-fashioned” customer service
· Responding within two hours to client inquiries.
· Meeting the personal needs of each customer.
"A large part of our business is answering different questions and addressing people’s concerns -- a lot of time goes into that,” Caryn says. “There are fears associated with storm chasing – every apprehension is a little different and we really learn about each one. For instance, we had a client who was concerned about her safety on tour – not with storms but with other people on the tour. That’s valid; you’re going out with a van full of people you don’t know into the back roads of rural America. But addressing that we have no more than three vans and every client rotates with different guides throughout the tour eased her concerns.”
· Customer safety
· Tour guides with expertise in science and reading radar equipment.
All vans are equipped with radar and weather stations, letting clients watch the drivers – “weather geeks,” says Caryn -- monitor how intense the storms are and how they act. Also, the vans are equipped with van-to-van radio communications.
Tours stay back 4 or 5 miles from the storm, and clients must stay in the van. “We know how close we can get and how far we must stay back,” says Caryn. “There are people who are in storm chasing to see the destruction and chaos and they ruin the reputation of storm chasing for others. So we don’t allow people who are a safety hazard or have unrealistic expectations join the tours.”
The Hills hold a waiting list for those that want to drive for Silver Lining Tours and only hire those that embrace their company values. They are usually firefighters or EMTs who can drive safely away from the storms, know how not to panic, and can assure storm “virgins” that they will be okay. They are also willing to be first responders in a crisis. “They have to be pretty good improvisers to be in this business,” says Caryn.
STORM CHASING SILVER LININGS:
Storms are unpredictable; there is the possibility of not witnessing a storm: “Mother nature won’t be scheduled,” Caryn says.
Silver Lining: Many historical and natural wonders where the Hills take tour groups are available. Time for other site seeing is always scheduled into every tour.
Storm chasing requires long hours on the road. “It’s a lot of work to see storms -- but once people get there, it’s usually unanimous that the long hours on the road were worth it,” says Caryn.
Silver Lining: “When you are out in the wind, and you see just this ginormous structure, and smell how the air smells – there’s no other smell like it – it’s so fresh and unique.”
· 60-70% of clients are repeat customers
· Year-Over-Year annual growth
· “We’ve grown every year, even during the recession.
· Surpass client recruitment goals
THE SILVER LINING TOUR LEGACY:
· Roger’s love for weather. He’s been interested in severe storms since he was a child.
· Passing on storm knowledge to every Silver Lining Tour guest. Seeing guests light up when they “get it” is so satisfying,” says Roger.
· If a storm is to be found, Silver Lining Tours does whatever it takes to find it.
TAKE IT FROM THEM: Advice to other entrepreneurs/business owners:
· Through experience, you learn how to keep your clients happy.
· Look for opportunities to learn the business to advance in the company and become part of the succession plan.
· It comes right down to thinking about your customers and not yourself.
· If you’re working a business as a couple: Remember nobody can spend 24/7 together. Find balance and give each other downtime. Being engrossed in a business as owner requires you to step aside to rejuvenate and return with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.