State tourism director Lee Sentell is the longest-serving state tourism director in the country and the longest-serving governor’s cabinet member in Alabama history. He is now serving in his 20th year after being appointed to the office by three consecutive Alabama governors.
Sentell’s writing background led him into tourism marketing and promotion. Sentell studied journalism at Auburn where he wrote for the Plainsman and served as managing editor under Jerry Brown, who later headed the journalism department for many years. After graduation, Lee wrote for a weekly newspaper in Birmingham before joining the Decatur Daily where he became city editor. He was named one of The Alabama Jaycees’ Four Outstanding Young Men and a Rotary International Group Study Exchange participant.
In 1980, he founded a volunteer tourism committee at the Chamber of Commerce and became the first director of the Decatur Tourism Bureau before being hired as the marketing director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. While at the center, he came up with the name Space Camp, and was marketing director for the first decade of the program. He was Huntsville tourism director when his hometown friend Bob Riley became governor and appointed him state tourism director in 2003. Robert Bentley retained him in 2011. Kay Ivey, whose campus political service Lee covered for the Plainsman during their Auburn days, has twice appointed him.
The Alabama Tourism Department’s annual “Year of” campaigns, such as the Year of Alabama Food that launched ATD’s ”100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” have been a hallmark of Sentell’s tenure. The years promoting barbecue, history, arts, the outdoors and history were equally successful.
Under his leadership, the agency has created numerous trails covering such wide ranging topics as Hank Williams, civil rights, scenic rivers, barbecue, music, caves and other subjects, appealing to tourists.
Under his direction, Alabama has become a leader among Southern states in the discussion of civil rights history. Sentell heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak during the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, which inspired him to create the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, one of the country’s first civil rights trails, when he became state tourism director. Under his leadership, Travel South USA, a 12-state, 55-year-old tourism trade organization based in Atlanta, developed the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in 2017. He wrote the companion book to the trail “The Official United States Civil Rights Trail” in 2021.
At the World Travel Market in London, the Alabama Tourism Department’s marketing campaign for the U.S. Civil Rights Trail led to it being the first state tourism department in the U.S. to ever win the organization’s Best Regional Destination award.
Sentell’s biggest success is on the horizon. At the encouragement of the director of the National Park Service, Sentell has supervised a project to nominate civil rights landmarks across the South as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The project is currently in line for UNESCO consideration in 2024.
Sentell is past president of Travel South USA. The organization presented him its first ever Visionary Award for uniting the region under one topic.
Most importantly, the level of spending from tourists has continued to grow during Sentell’s tenure. Even with the pandemic causing major drops in tourism throughout the country, spending by visitors to Alabama last year had more than doubled during his tenure.
He is a proud Auburn graduate who followed in the footsteps of his father, his aunt who taught math, and his brother, who earned honors as both undergraduate and master’s in fine arts. After a generation without family members at Auburn, he is delighted that grandchildren of both of his sisters are on campus.