Are Chase Tour Operators Adequately Educating Clientele?

The date was 11 June 2010, a fun and rewarding storm intercept adventure in eastern Colorado; see the full chase account here on our Storms Observed BLOG.

While I was shooting storm backgrounds ahead of a tail-end supercell, and on the grounds of the famous Genoa Wonder Tower (with permission, see above photo looking N), a driver came up to me and introduced himself, admitting this was his first solo chase, and asking if “that part” was about to produce a tornado. “That part” was a ragged, very obvious (to me anyway) shelf cloud surfing the gust front well to our SW. I didn’t even take a photo of that part of the storm complex; it looked so lame.

Rather unnerved that he was out there trying to chase while armed with so little understanding, I kindly gave him a quick 3-minute tutorial on storm structure in the atmosphere’s real-time laboratory class. Before the appreciative fellow left, I asked him how he got into chasing, and his response was that he had gone out the last three years with two different chase tours — run by people with whom I am familiar, both having a well-earned reputation as high-adrenaline thrillseekers. While knowledgeable chasers, neither seem particularly inclined toward education of their clients, and it showed!

What is the ethical responsibility of a chase tour to instruct its guests, to get them prepared for their own chasing endeavors should they wish to do so, and to discourage them from going it alone until they are ready? Are some tours collectively spawning a legion of ill-informed chasers who really aren’t any more prepared after than before, because the tour leaders are inclined more toward “nabbing the nader” and providing “XTREME INSANE” rushes of excitement at any cost, while neglecting the intellectual needs of their clientele? Do some relatively inexperienced (say, less than 10 years) tour operators simply lack the meteorological understanding to explain, accurately and insightfully, the storms they chase? In such cases, how unsafe is such ignorance on the part of tour staff for their clients while on tour — much less later? These are valid questions.

I do know of one reputable, longtime field operator — not a meteorologist himself, but certainly skilled and astute at storm observing — who conducts a “lecture tour” with a famous, well-respected chaser and Ph.D. in atmospheric science. It’s a great idea. In a similar vein, maybe having more teaching-inclined experts riding along on these tours — a select few folks with deep, deep experience and understanding of violent storms and the ability to teach about it — is the solution. [Note that experience alone is not sufficient and does not necessarily mean much; someone without solid meteorological understanding, doing the same thing for 21 years, might only have one year of ill-informed experience repeated 20 times over.]

I’m not going to endorse or bash any particular tour by name; instead, this is intended to stir up discussion on a broader issue pertinent to them all, and perhaps, give potential tourists another tool to use when choosing whom to provide big bags of shekels for services rendered.

This storm-observing greenhorn at Genoa seemed well-educated otherwise, smart, and curious; indeed, he was not much different in age than me…but also, unsafely unenlightened about storm structure and behavior. After 3 years and many thousands of dollars of high-priced touring, how does that happen?



Comments

5 Responses to “Are Chase Tour Operators Adequately Educating Clientele?”

  1. tornado on July 9th, 2010 1:50 am

    Comments from Chuck Doswell:

    ———————-

    As you know, I seem unable to post comments on your blog, so I’m sending this to you directly.

    > > While I was shooting storm backgrounds ahead of a tail-end supercell, and on the grounds of the famous Genoa Wonder Tower (with permission, see above photo looking N), a driver came up to me and introduced himself, admitting this was his first solo chase, and asking if “that part” was about to produce a tornado. “That part” was a ragged, very obvious (to me anyway) shelf cloud surfing the gust front well to our SW. I didn’t even take a photo of that part of the storm complex; it looked so lame.
    > >
    > > Rather unnerved that he was out there trying to chase while armed with so little understanding, I kindly gave him a quick 3-minute tutorial on storm structure in the atmosphere’s real-time laboratory class. Before the appreciative fellow left, I asked him how he got into chasing, and his response was that he had gone out the last three years with two different chase tours — run by people with whom I am familiar, both having a well-earned reputation as high-adrenaline thrillseekers. While knowledgeable chasers, neither seem particularly inclined toward education of their clients, and it showed!
    > >
    > > What is the ethical responsibility of a chase tour to instruct its guests, to get them prepared for their own chasing endeavors should they wish to do so, and to discourage them from going it alone until they are ready?

    Insofar as I can tell, people don’t sign up for chase tours to become educated, and I’m confident that chase tour operators have no legal or ethical responsibility to educate anyone. Even my “Lecture Tour” is not billed as granting our clients some sort of certification as trained chasers.

    > > Are some tours collectively spawning a legion of ill-informed chasers who really aren’t any more prepared after than before, because the tour leaders are inclined more toward “nabbing the nader” and providing “XTREME INSANE” rushes of excitement at any cost, while neglecting the intellectual needs of their clientele?

    The clients may indeed have serious educational gaps from our perspective, but I doubt they are signing up to allow us the opportunity to fill those gaps, for the most part. If they want to become meteorologists, that requires something far different from what we can provide on a chase tour. They want us to take them to see severe storms and tornadoes. I don’t feel any compelling ethical requirement to bring them up to some sort of pre-determined knowledge level. As I’m sure you’re aware, the capacity of people to learn varies widely. I teach no classes, administer no exams, and offer no certificate of achievement. People are paying for the opportunity to experience storm chasing as we do, which I believe we provide. That satisfies our obligations, I think.

    > > Do some relatively inexperienced (say, less than 10 years) tour operators simply lack the meteorological understanding to explain, accurately and insightfully, the storms they chase?

    Absolutely! In fact, even some experienced operators don’t have the scientific understanding to assume that task.

    > > In such cases, how unsafe is such ignorance on the part of tour staff for their clients while on tour — much less later?

    I doubt seriously that an experienced tour director’s safety practices are tied very closely to their level of scientific understanding of storms. And the safety practices of clients after one or more tours are outside of our control – we can only show by example what is considered reasonable safety practice. The tour group with which I’m associated is pretty “conservative” in its chasing practice, out of a shared company concern for safety.

    > > These are valid questions.

    Yes, of course, but …

    > > I do know of one reputable, longtime field operator — not a meteorologist himself, but certainly skilled and astute at storm observing — who conducts a “lecture tour” with a famous, well-respected chaser and Ph.D. in atmospheric science. It’s a great idea.

    I’m very pleased to be associated with such a tour and enjoy it, but I have little or no expectations for instilling significant knowledge in our clients. Some of our clients have become very interested in the meteorology of convective storms, including one who was inspired to complete a doctorate in meteorology. Another is working to increase his understanding of meteorology so he can forecast for a chase vacation of his own. I do what I can to encourage that, of course. But such outcomes are collateral, not central to our goals as chase tour staff. We answer questions and try to convey the answers in a way that’s understandable to a layperson. I give some formal and also some impromptu lectures about meteorological topics as opportunities arise in the context of our chase day – nothing more.

    > > In a similar vein, maybe having more teaching-inclined experts riding along on these tours — a select few folks with deep, deep experience and understanding of violent storms and the ability to teach about it — is the solution. [Note that experience alone is not sufficient and does not necessarily mean much; someone without solid meteorological understanding, doing the same thing for 21 years, might only have one year of ill-informed experience repeated 20 times over.]

    This might be a good idea, but it’s not evident that there’s enough demand for this to induce tour operators to provide it. I HAVE observed that other tour operators now offer a “lecture tour”, but the content of their version of such a tour is very different from mine. I’ve heard about these things from clients who have joined my tour after having gone on the “lecture tour” offered by competitors – I was told that what I do is quite different.

    > > I’m not going to endorse or bash any particular tour by name; instead, this is intended to stir up discussion on a broader issue pertinent to them all, and perhaps, give potential tourists another tool to use when choosing whom to provide big bags of shekels for services rendered.

    Stirring up a discussion is fine by me …

    > > This storm-observing greenhorn at Genoa seemed well-educated otherwise, smart, and curious; indeed, he was not much different in age than me…but also, unsafely unenlightened about storm structure and behavior. After 3 years and many thousands of dollars of high-priced touring, how does that happen?

    It happens because turning “newbies” into highly-trained, knowledgeable veterans in a week (per year) is not a goal of any chase tour I know about. And justifiably so, in my opinion.

  2. tornado on July 9th, 2010 1:50 am

    I still don’t see how someone, who doesn’t seem stupid or ambivalent about the topic, can spend 3 different sessions with 2 different tour outfits, and still be looking for a tornado along the shelf cloud on a trailing gust front (well S of the meso). I’m not demanding that every tour group be like CoD, but instead wondering why very fundamental concepts don’t seem to reach the audience. The few wildlife tours I’ve attended seem to make it a priority to educate their customers on what they’re seeing. Doesn’t the experience mean more if you understand what’s happening, at least on a fundamental level?

  3. tornado on July 9th, 2010 1:51 am

    Reply from Chuck Doswell:

    ——————————–

    However, you still seem to be of the belief that tours are in the education and training business, which they aren’t – unless they choose to take that on (and none have). Just how much education can sink in during a week’s tour, for a client starting at zero? We don’t spend most of the time lecturing, even on my tour. For this year, the 15 guests were split up in 3 different vans, so I could only talk to those in MY van (7 at a time). I have no idea what went on in the other vans, but I suspect the staff members (drivers) in those other vans might have been doing some Q&A – I prefer not to think about what they might have been saying …

    I try to explain things as they’re watching what’s going on, as well as the occasional “sit down” lecture, but with rare exceptions (we had such a person on this tour), I believe that most of what I say goes in one ear and out the other. That person had spent considerable time reading about storms on the internet since his last tour and I recommended some elementary meteorology textbooks for him to read before next year. On some tours, I’ve had to explain relatively simple things to certain clients multiple times before they barely BEGIN to grasp what I’m saying. You seem to imply that two or three tours and a guest should be knowledgeable. A few of them DO become ignorant “know-it-alls” after a couple of tours, unfortunately, and begin to provide MISinformation to other guests!

    I re-iterate: Tour clients aren’t there to be educated – we’re paid to get them to see storms. Period. It’s not practical to make education a priority on a tour, for many reasons, including (but not limited to) the fact that that’s NOT what the clients are paying us to do!! Only the occasional guest, even on my “lecture tour” actually WANTS to learn more about the meteorology. CoD students on a CoD tour are doing what amounts to a lab exercise in a course – you certainly could have a much higher expectation for them than for the vast majority of tour clients.

    Sure, the experience would mean more, as I see it. If we were dealing with at most one or two guests, who had signed up with learning about meteorology as a specific goal, then it would be possible to do more educating. Even in those circumstances, you can’t say much on the fly if the guests are starting with basically zero understanding. How much meteorology did YOU take before things began to make at least some coherent sense? Do you think you could have gotten there in a week? Or 3 weeks, with 51 weeks in between each of the week-long sessions? Understanding meteorology on a fundamental level isn’t easy …

    One more point … we had several guest on MY tour this year who basically avoided talking with me for most of the trip. I don’t know ALL the reasons for that, but some of our guests this year were professional or semi-pro photographers and they evidently didn’t want me to explain things to them at all! They wanted storm photos and didn’t want me hovering about distracting them with meteorology lectures. I think the others simply wanted to see storms and found the other vans to be more comfortable for the long drives. I don’t quite understand why they signed up for MY tour in particular, unless it just happened to be at a time of year when they could go on such a trip.

  4. tornado on July 9th, 2010 2:07 am

    I don’t claim the tours are in the “education and training business”, but instead, mostly just asked questions about what extent the tours have a professional responsibility to inform (not just entertain) their clientele.

    I think that they at least make some rudimentary effort to provide knowledge about what their clientele are seeing. Seems like common sense to me! Surely one can and should learn, in three different seasons, at 2 weeks each, with experienced storm chasers, the difference between a shelf cloud and a wall cloud, which one can see after 10 minutes in a basic spotter training session. I definitely don’t want tours to replace spotting sessions or claim to do so, but just to serve clients’ intellectual needs as well as their desire for adrenaline rushes.

    Again, assorted wildlife, Park Service, photography and eco tours I’ve attended seem to make far more effort to educate and inform their clientele, even if it’s not necessarily codified into some mission statement. Why not storm tours too? Does it hurt the bottom line? I don’t see how; if anything, it should help.

    Alternatively, maybe those chase tour groups that turned out this curious but abjectly ill-informed chase newbie should state, explicitly and forthrightly, that customers not expect to learn anything. That’s the most honest approach.

    Welcome to MegaWedgeF6 XTREME INSANE Tornado Tours! Treat our tour like a roller coaster, and the atmosphere is an amusement park. You’re along for the ride and the thrills — nothing more, nothing less. If you want to learn something about storms, take a spotter class.

  5. tornado on January 8th, 2011 9:41 pm

    Comment by Robert Edmonds:
    ————

    From my limited experience as a tour guide, I largely agree with Chuck Doswell’s comments that most guests simply want to see a tornado. How much each customer wishes to learn varies greatly, along with what the individual hopes to get out of the tour. Some just want good photographs or videos, while others are there for the mainly for the experience. My goal as a guide is to attempt to accommodate each customer’s goals as much as possible.

    If requested though, I sit down and attempt to explain what I’m looking for in T-P diagrams, radar, etc. With reasonable success I can get them to start figuring some things out on their own. It’s hard though, especially when you’re usually comfortable with people being used mathematical/physical concepts, and suddenly you’re working with people with no to very little math or physics background. I certainly don’t begrudge them though (heck they’re paying me to take them storm chasing), but simply work with them as best I can during the limited time I have. I’d be surprised, and don’t believe that I could take all of what I’ve learned in the course of years and compress into one-two weeks worth of educational lectures, especially when we’re busy with driving, etc. Besides I’d be surprised if many storm chasers themselves even understand weather to the quality you and many others would like (you might even take issue with me having less than 10 years experience J ).

    It should be noted though there was a recent study on storm chasing tours by two individuals out of MU. Surprising to me that there was a need for a study, but hey I’ll take what information I can get. The study is not yet published (I believe) but you can find press releases for it on the web. Anyhow, the study found many storm chasing tour customers felt that there was room for improvement in the educational experience they received while on the tour. With that in mind, I will certainly keep attempting to educate my customers as best I can, but only if they want. Perhaps other tours should do the same?

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