Ever been to an egg processing plant? How about an emu ranch or a chimpanzee research center?
If not, Dick Jensen has just the trip for you.
Jensen is a Spokane tour guide who plans short trips throughout the Inland Northwest. His business, Inland Empire Events, began five years ago as a part-time operation offering 12 trips yearly. It’s grown into a full-time outfit with 90 day and overnight trips annually.
Not all the trips are as unusual as the ones above.
There are symphony concerts, Christmas lights tours and train rides through Montana, not to mention white water rafting, dog sledding and boat cruises on regional lakes and rivers.
“It’s busy all year,” said Jensen, 45. “The key is to find the thing each season that captures people’s interest.”
About 3,800 people receive Jensen’s every-other-month newsletter, adorned with his logo of the Spokane falls beneath the Monroe Street Bridge. He’d love to expand his business to include a fleet of five tour vans, departing on trips every day.
With child-like excitement, Jensen describes tours of buffalo ranches, historic mansions and a university research center where five chimpanzees have learned to speak sign language.
The trips vary in price. A train ride along the Pend Oreille River, including a visit to a buffalo ranch, costs $49. A tour of five historic buildings in Dayton costs $48.50. An overnight trip to Leavenworth, including a sleigh ride and visit to the Christmas Lighting Festival, costs between $158 and $194.
Still, Jensen’s not getting rich, and he runs the business from his modest Browne’s Addition apartment. But the business pays the bills, and he’s in the enviable position of loving his job. He travels four times per week, getting paid to visit new and unusual places.
“I’m experiencing things that earlier in my life I could only dream about,” he said. “I have found what I love.”
That was the goal five years ago, when Jensen decided to start a business.
He’d always been fascinated with the attractions each region has to offer. While stationed in South Carolina in the U.S. Air Force, the first thing he did was drive three hours for a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Some of the people had been stationed there three to four years and had never been to the Atlantic Ocean,” Jensen said with disbelief.
A posting at Fairchild Air Force Base brought Jensen to Spokane in 1984. He left the Air Force in 1985 and went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Eastern Washington University. He worked in sales for seven years before venturing out on his own.
The idea for Inland Empire Events hit him when he realized he already organized an event every month, such as a trip for 50 to the symphony for a club he belonged to, a ski trip for 20 friends and a Halloween party.
“I’m doing this once a month and I really enjoy it,” he recalled thinking. “Why don’t I start a business?”
At first, he targeted single people, offering horseback riding trips, murder mystery nights and ballgames.
“That was a hard market to make work. What I found was, single people are really fickle. They’re so into looking for Mr. or Ms. Right,” Jensen said.
Two years later, he opened his events to everyone and stumbled upon a niche - senior citizens. Now, in addition his regular event schedule, Jensen plans one trip per month for five different senior centers.
“The seniors really appreciate the unusual events I do,” Jensen said. “I’ve carved a niche there.”
Jensen goes all out to make sure his customers are happy. He carries snacks, stops at restrooms every hour and books hotel rooms on the first floor so elderly customers won’t have to climb stairs. He also packs blankets and speaks through a microphone.
“He gives 100 percent when he’s on the road,” said Jensen’s part-time assistant Greg Kitley.
The effort is paying off. A manila folder in Jensen’s file cabinet is filled an inch thick with thank you letters from people who’ve gone on his trips.
“It was absolutely heavenly,” wrote Louise Hallet, a member of the South Hill Senior Center of a May 17 wildflower viewing trip. “One of the best times I’ve ever had! Dick took good care of us, as he always does.”
Jensen marvels at the life he leads, though he works 80 to 100 hours per week and spends most of his time on the phone. Each trip takes about 10 phone calls to plan.
“But they’re so much fun,” he said. “They’re not like work. They’re like my recreation.”
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