One decision that you will have to make when you choose a storm chasing tour is whether you want to go with a Large tour company or a Smaller one. This is typically one of the most important question when tour guest choose a tour. So, which tours are best and what are the differences?
I define a “Large tour company” as one who runs more than one vehicle on the majority of their tours. Considering this definition the following should be considered Large tour companies:
All of the above tours have a window seat guarantee so none of the vans are crammed with a tour guest of every seat in the vans. There are at most two tour guests per row in the vans.
COD storm chasing could also be considered a “Large tour” as they use 1-2 tour vans but, as opposed to other tour companies, every seat is filled (no window seat guarantee). COD (College of du Page) is however not really a tour company but a tour by College of du Page open for the public.
For all of the above the size of the tour is a matter of the amount of sign-ups and when the tour is during the season. In the beginning and very end of the season (when demand is smaller) there could be only one tour van for the entire tour.
The definition of a small tour company is simply that they run only one vehicle – it could be a mini-van or a Ford Explorer 15-seat van. These larger vans are never filled to the maximum either but with only two guests per row to guarantee a window seat for everyone. As the tour companies have one tour guide and one driver (in 95% of the cases) this means the capacity is somewhere between 4-6 tour guests per tour depending on the vehicle of choice. This could be compared to 25-30 on some of the largest tours.
Generally, a Large Tour is more challenging and offers more potential risks of problems as there are more individuals around that can affect the experience for the whole group. Typically, there are more practical downsides than upsides by going on a Large Tour. It is simply a matter of how well the downsides are taken care of through efficiency and guidelines.
One major flaw of a Large Tour is that there is typically one main tour guide on a tour. The tour guide that holds all the experience and runs the show. Sometimes the other vans only have a driver that drives where the tour guide tells them to go. The problem with this setup is that you do not drive in the same van as the profile tour guide every day. If you have any questions or want to be constantly updated you are worse off in the vans where the tour guide isn’t. The seats are on a rotation schedule so you always end up with the tour guide on a regular basis – but not every day.
A tour stays together so if there are more than one van in the tour they stop at the same place to watch the storms as well as to get gas, eat etc. The tour guests are not split up normally. For a Large Tour this means that when you stop to watch the storms one needs to find a place off the road where the entire tour can stop – or at least close to each other. Once you stop in the field there is a larger crowd of people out taking photos etc. This could mean that the best places to watch are taken or that other people obscure your view/shot but this is typically not a problem – there is almost always room as most stops are out on open fields.
A stop to watch storms could take longer due to the fact that everyone needs to get back to the vans before you leave. Just one person lingering could delay the entire tour (which is true for every type of stop). This is generally not a problem either as each van acts like its own entity and tour guests tend to stay around “their” van – just like a Small Tour would do.
Bathroom breaks, hotel checkins, restaurant orders typically take (a lot) longer, especially when you stop for the first time in 3 hours at a lonely gas station with only one bathroom. This could be stressy if you are chasing a storm and don’t want to fall behind.
Generally, running a large tour is more challenging to the tour guide as he needs to have, and enforce, strict guidelines so that one tour guest, or a few, won’t affect the entire tour. Typically, as they are used to handling larger crowds of guests they are used to this and makes these problems less noticeable.
Lastly, one reason I have heard many times why some may choose not to go with a Large Tour is that they feel like charter tourists being shipped around and that the personal feeling is lost to a great extent.
There are however few benefits of being many tour guests on the same tour other than social reasons – you are more likely to find a friend or a group of people you like in a Large Tour. In a Small Tour you are more by yourself and stuck with the few people you are on the same tour with.
If it is less practical of going with a Large Tour, why are they so popular then? The reason is that the Large Tour companies are usually the tour companies that have been around the longest (often started in the late 90’s), often created and owned by a tour guide who has a lot of experience and a great reputation. This results in the tour company as well having a good reputation and a strong brand built up over the years. It is also a matter of how well the tour companies have been marketing their tours over the years.
Large tour companies also have larger budgets and can hire great tour guides. Larger budgets also typically mean a more professional and business-like approach to the tours where Smaller Tours can have more of a take it as it comes attitude, very generally speaking.
This all results in many happy customers returning to their tours, which increases the demand and thus also increase the tour sizes. So, the size is an indirect sign that the tour companies are great at what they are doing!
This all does not mean that the opposite necessarily is true – that the Smaller Tours are younger, by less experienced tour guides and are less professional. Not at all. Some (for example Extreme Chase Tours, Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, and F5! Tornado safaris) have been around for a long time and have high-profile tour guides who have been chasing for a long time. Some have made an active decision of staying small as it is more convenient and running large tours is not for everyone. Generally speaking though, small tour companies are small because they have not been around as long and have not (yet) built up the same reputation as the larger tour companies.
If you would ask a Small Tour Company they would claim that their tours are more personal, faster and more flexible, and point out some of the problems mentioned above that the Large Tours have.
On the other hand, if you ask a Large Tour Company they would claim that they have a good hand on the possible problems of running large groups and that they are very efficient so that these things won’t matter in the end. They would highlight the skills and reputation of their tour guides and the amount of returning, happy customers. In comparison with smaller tour companies it is not uncommon that they claim never to have heard of them and that choosing a small company “no one has heard of” is a higher risk.
In my own opinion, there are no real benefits of going on a Large Tour over a Small Tour. It is just easier and better with fewer people on the tour. However, to complicate things, going with a Large Tour Company is a different thing, which offers completely different benefits as they tend to run high quality tours and have done so for many years. They are the safe bet, so to speak. You will have to match this benefit over the potential problems of going with a larger crowd. If you have the opportunity to go on a one-van tour with a Large Tour Company this is usually a good idea as you get the best of two worlds.
Lastly, please note that these pros and cons are all fluid and may not perfectly apply to every tour company – Large or Small. It is a general statement not only by my own experience but also from discussing the matter with other tour guests over the years.
Please state your own opinion about Large vs Small tour companies in the comments below.