Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: On tour with Dick Jensen

Inland Empire Tours owner Dick Jensen poses for a photo in his tour bus on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Dick Jensen doesn’t offer tours of the moon.

Not yet, anyway.

But during the past 24 years, Jensen has driven his tour buses far enough to reach the moon and back, then circle the globe five times.

This year, Jensen and his Inland Empire Tours staff will accompany some 2,000 travelers on 150 outings, including two new destinations: Portugal and South America.

During a recent interview, the peripatetic entrepreneur and author of “Spokane Set in Stone – Selected Historical Monuments, Markers and Points of Interest” discussed growing his business, favorite destinations and how he remembers historical minutiae.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Jensen: On a farm near Puyallup. I started picking strawberries, rhubarb and carrots at 8. When I was 14, I began working at a poultry farm every night after school and on Saturdays.

S-R: What did you do with all the money?

Jensen: I bought a couple of cars and put myself through college.

S-R: In high school, did you have a favorite class or activity?

Jensen: I loved science and history. And adventures. When I was 16, my 14-year-old brother and I bicycled 500 miles around the Olympic Peninsula.

S-R: Did you envision a particular career back then?

Jensen: No. In fact, until I was almost 40, I kept asking myself what I should do when I grow up. Then I started this, and knew it was what I wanted.

S-R: What did you do before launching Inland Empire Tours?

Jensen: I spent three years in college studying forestry management, then quit and joined the Air Force. That’s when I discovered I really liked traveling.

S-R: How did you end up in Spokane?

Jensen: The Air Force brought me here. Besides it being a beautiful place, it’s about six hours from my family – close enough to visit them twice a year and still have my own life.

S-R: What did you do after leaving the Air Force?

Jensen: I sold encyclopedias door to door for four years. Next I sold letterhead stationery and business cards. But I got fired when I stood up for a customer whose print job wasn’t up to par. So I read “What Color is Your Parachute,” a book about changing careers, and realized what I enjoyed most was organizing monthly trips for fellow members of my church. So I turned that into a career.

S-R: How long did it take to gain traction?

Jensen: Almost four years. At first I tried organizing singles trips like I did at my church. But those had too many up-front costs – venues, bands. Then I took a mixed group to Wenatchee for river rafting, and that went well. Gradually we added longer trips to the San Juans, Seattle’s Northwest Flower and Garden Show, and McCall’s Winter Carnival.

S-R: Any near-disasters?

Jensen: Two years ago, the federal government shut down just as we arrived at the Grand Canyon on a six-day trip that was supposed to include three days of national parks and recreation areas. I had to redesign the trip on the fly, but it worked out. I hired some Native American guides, and gave my clients a great trip they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

S-R: How about good memories?

Jensen: Yellowstone in the wintertime is one of the best trips we offer. You can’t imagine how beautiful and serene that is, and the abundance of wildlife. Another great trip is our Virginia tour of Civil War sites and presidential homes.

S-R: How far afield do you venture?

Jensen: We’ve taken 25 clients to Nova Scotia, 15 to Ireland and 15 to Panama.

S-R: What’s your most popular day trip?

Jensen: Palouse Falls. It’s so beautiful, it catches people off guard. Other trips that fill quickly are festivals like the Uniontown sausage feed.

S-R: What trips have lost their allure?

Jensen: Casino day trips. We used to do four to six a month. Since Northern Quest opened (in Airway Heights), we’re down to one.

S-R: Did the recession impact your business?

Jensen: It really hurt attendance on our big trips. We’re just starting to recover.

S-R: What else affects attendance?

Jensen: If it looks like it might rain, you’d be surprised how many people want to cancel.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

Jensen: Definitely summer. December, too, because there are so many activities – concerts and Christmas light tours.

S-R: How many hours a week might you work?

Jensen: Sixty to 80. I estimate I’ve driven more than 600,000 miles since I started the company.

S-R: Have you ever been in an accident?

Jensen: You can’t drive that many miles without a mishap or two, but I’ve had more mechanical problems on the bus over the years than accidents.

S-R: How do you design trips?

Jensen: I’m always reading newspapers and brochures, and searching the Internet. This year our Portland trip will include a stop at Boardman’s new SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture and Energy) Center, which highlights activities at the Port of Morrow.

S-R: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Jensen: Visiting sites where something important took place.

S-R: What do you like least?

Jensen: Marketing. It’s tough sometimes figuring out how to get your information to the right people. What works best is my newsletter, which goes to 2,300 people.

S-R: Has the Internet helped?

Jensen: Visit Spokane ( brings last-minute clients to things like our ghost tours. And people who find us online sometimes request custom trips. One family asked us to take them to the site on Fourth of July Pass where their grandfather was killed during Prohibition. But most of my customers are older, so they’re not as Internet savvy as young people.

S-R: Has GPS made your job easier?

Jensen: Yes. I used to have to memorize my route. Now I just enter my next stop and follow directions.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Jensen: My library. I have thousands of history books – mostly Northwest history. Also, bringing smiles to my clients. Many have said I helped them check something off their bucket list.

S-R: How do you remember historical details?

Jensen: I’ve been involved with Toastmasters, a terrific public-speaking organization, for more than 20 years. I turn my tour presentation into a speech, and that helps me remember it later when I’m on the bus.

S-R: What’s the toughest part of your job?

Jensen: Finding employees who are good drivers, friendly and also enjoy sharing history.

S-R: Are there misconceptions about your business?

Jensen: The biggest one is when someone comes on a trip that goes well, and says, “I’d love to do this job myself. It looks so easy.” They don’t realize that every stop required five phone calls to make it work.

S-R: How do you relax?

Jensen: My wife and companion of 22 years, Mary, and I spend our off time exploring, just like I spend my on time – looking for new places and things to share. Both of us love traveling.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at