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Sept. 9, 2010 Volume 32, No. 3

Single males, educated, seek tornadoes


Research finds a niche market with room to grow

Since the hit movie Twister opened a window on the world of recreational storm-chasers in 1996, a growing number of companies have been offering tourists an up-close look at tornadoes. Data collected by researchers with the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources suggests that the market for so-called tornado tourism will continue to grow.

The research, by Sonja Wilhelm Stanis and Carla Barbieri, both assistant professors, was collected from tours conducted along Tornado Alley, an area from mid-Texas northward through Kansas and Minnesota and into Canada, in 2009. 

The research found that tornado tourists are primarily middle-aged, single and highly educated. Sixty-two percent were male. Slightly more than half of the storm tourists lived in North America, about one-third were from Europe, 13 percent traveled from Canada and almost 11 percent from Australia.

Most chasers had higher than average incomes – almost a third earned $50,000 to $75,000 annually. Almost 20 percent had incomes of up to $100,000 and 13 percent earned $150,000 or more.  

The research team, which included Jiawen Chen and Shuangyu Xu, presented their findings at the 2010 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium in Sagamore, NY. A gathering of recreation managers and researchers

Wilhelm Stanis noted that recreational storm chasers are not mere thrill-seekers, as they are commonly portrayed on TV and in the movies.  More than 90 percent of respondents said they took a tornado your to enjoy nature’s beauty and to learn more about storm dynamics. The vast majority said they like to explore unconventional places and have exciting experiences rather than participate in risky behavior, Barbieri continued. 

The MU research team worked with five companies offering the tours. Most use experienced meteorologists and trained storm chasers, armed with sophisticated weather-tracking equipment. The companies charged $3,000 to $5,000, not including meals or accommodations, and the tours attracted three to 15 customers per tour. The tours typically involve long hours on the road between tornado watch areas and last one to two weeks, with camera operators recording the event as part of the package.  

Most tours accommodate seven people in a van, although one enterprising operator uses an armored Humvee equipped with Doppler radar, a lightning detector and weather recording instruments. More than 95 percent of tourists reported seeing at least one significant weather event – with half seeing a funnel cloud and a third experiencing at least one tornado, Wilhelm Stanis said.

The chasers reported that they enjoyed their experiences and are inclined to spend more money on future tours. “Importantly for the continuity of this type of niche tourism, the majority of respondents recommend tornado chasing to others, such as their friends,” Barbieri said.  

Wilhelm Stanis and Barbieri said that the level of satisfaction is important because word-of-mouth is the most important form of marketing for storm-chasing companies. Barbieri and Wilhelm Stanis said that the data will give tornado tour operators and communities a better understanding of these clients, and they expect tornado tourism to continue to develop as a sub-part of the Midwest’s tourism scene.  

“Many of these tours fill up as much as a year in advance,” Barbieri said.

— Randy Mertens