Launched: 1998 (Roger and Caryn became owners in 2013) and 2008
Location: Bennett, CO
Roger Hill’s fascination with severe weather was sparked when he was a kid growing up along the Kansas/Missouri border. Watching huge storms and tornadoes race along the Missouri River, Roger wasn’t scared – he was intrigued. His interest never waned and, when Roger wasn’t working as an accountant in the Air Force or as a contract manager for an engineering firm, he’d hit the road to go chase storms. In 2000, Roger was hired as a guide for Silver Lining Tours, one of only two storm chasing companies in existence at the time. He loved the work and decided he wanted to do it full-time. When he gave notice at the engineering firm, his boss said, “If you can make a living doing something you enjoy, by all means, do it!” Thirteen years and countless tornadoes later, Roger and his wife, Caryn, bought the company from the founder. Today, SLT is thriving thanks to Roger and Caryn’s deep storm chasing expertise, their willingness to expand their business model and their commitment to outstanding customer service.
Roger, at Silver Lining Tours, you progressed from employee to partner to owner. Tell us about the transition to becoming a fulltime entrepreneur.
When I first thought about storm chasing fulltime, I emailed the owners of the two companies offering guided tours. I asked, “How did you get your business going?” Only one responded -- Dr. David Gold, who founded Silver Lining Tours. He answered all my questions, and, eventually, he invited me to work with him as a guide.
A couple years later, I married my high school sweetheart, Caryn, and she started driving with me on the tours. Caryn loved it, too. We became business partners with Dr. Gold in 2003. Over time, his priorities shifted, and he was less focused on communicating with clients. We knew we had to give great customer service if we wanted to succeed in business, so Caryn and I offered to buy him out. In 2013, we became the official owners of the company.
Customer service must be particularly important since you can’t guarantee you’ll see tornadoes or storms on every trip. How do you ensure a great customer experience no matter what?
We believe customer service is #1 in everything we do. It starts before a tour – I check emails every couple of hours to answer any questions from guests. Communication is very important, and guests really appreciate it.
When we’re out on a trip, we can cover up to 500 miles in a day for seven days straight. We spend a lot of time together on the road. Our vans are super comfortable, and we stay in nice, clean hotels. It costs us a little bit more, but it’s worth it. Other guides say hey, you’re here to chase storms, you can deal with bed bugs. We take a different approach.
There are about a dozen other storm-chasing companies out there now, and we’re all fighting for the same slice of the pie. A lot of the young guys make idiot promises like offering a money-back guarantee if you don’t see a tornado or claiming to be the “world’s greatest forecaster.” They might know how to make a website look good, but no one can control nature.
I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years now. We’re the second oldest storm chasing company in the industry, and we’re the largest. Nearly 65% of our customers are repeat guests, so we must be doing something right.
How has your business model shifted over time and why?
We’re always thinking about how to expand or improve our tours. Caryn hit upon the idea of offering photography tours. She’s a professional photographer, and she drives a van just for people who want to shoot the storms. We have different options, like the Close Encounters tour for folks who want to push the envelope or the Great North Tornado Hunt in Canada at the end of the storm season. We started Southwest Photography Tours, too, when we go to Arizona during monsoon season and teach people how to photograph lightning.
We offer a reunion tour, too, when we give returning guests a special discount. During the off-season, any time there’s significant weather setting up, we’ll send an email and see who wants to fly in on the spot. We also sell storm photography and videos, and we work closely with the Weather Channel. We run an annual National Storm Chaser convention, too. It’s a way for enthusiasts to get together and offset “Storm Deprivation Syndrome” – that’s a real thing!
In our partnership, I’m the business guy and Caryn is the creative. Even if I’m a little skeptical, we put her ideas into play and bam! It’s a huge success. I’ve learned to listen to everything she says.
There are inherent risks to driving vans filled with people close to a tornado or a significant storm. How do you mitigate the risk – and have you ever had a close call?
Safety is first, of course. You never want to drive through hail the size of tennis balls or winds that can blow out your windows. There are only a couple of insurance companies that will insure storm chasers, and we pay a lot of money to cover our vans. I’d say 80% of operators just use their auto insurance as a buffer, which is not a good plan.
We always maintain as much control over the situation as we can, and we know when to get out of a potentially dangerous situation. One of our vans did get hit by lightning – first time in all my years of storm chasing. No one was hurt, but our electrical system was instantly fried. We all piled into the van behind us and then rented a new vehicle. The next day, we saw nine tornadoes. Our guests loved the whole experience so much they’ve already signed up for next year!
Roger, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, you’ve seen more tornadoes than anyone in the world.
I set the record in 2014 when I’d seen 630 tornadoes. Pulling together all the spreadsheets and data for Guinness is a huge undertaking. You need visual evidence, a signed affidavit from a witness, a GPS log to prove you were there and meteorological records to show the storm happened. I’m updating my record again now to 700 tornadoes, and it should stand for a good long time. Holding the world record for tornado-spotting is a great marketing tool for Silver Lining Tours.
QB Community members, how have you expanded or changed your brand to attract new customers? Once you made the shift, how did you let people know about your latest offerings?
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I’ve been self-employed for most of my career as content specialist, so I know how much discipline and determination it takes to run your own business. As QB Community Content Chief, I love sharing the stories of people committed to doing things their way. I hope you’ll join our community and share your inspiring story!