State tourism director Lee Sentell is the longest serving member of an Alabama Governor’s Cabinet. His tenure has been concurrent with that of three governors. He is serving his 17th year.
Lee’s writing background led him into tourism 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 for the first decade of Space Camp. He was Huntsville tourism director when his hometown friend Bob Riley became governor appointed him as the 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 annual “Year of” campaigns has been a hallmark of Sentell’s tenure, such as the Year of Alabama Food which launched ”100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” The years promoting barbecue, history, arts, the outdoors and history were equally successful.
Because of the Year Of campaigns, the department has earned numerous national awards. Each year the national tourism industry bestows a number of awards to the 50 state agencies. Against the other 49 states, Alabama has won the category for niche or specialty marketing some eight times in the past 12 years.
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 various other topics that appeal to tourists. Alabama has become a leader among southern states in the discussion of civil rights history. At the encouragement of the director of the National Park Service, Alabama has undertaken the nomination of various civil rights landmarks across the South to become UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The project is in line for UNESCO consideration in the summer of 2021
Because of the civil rights promotion, the International Tourism and Tourism Awards in London honored the Alabama Tourism Department for the Best Regional Destination last November. Alabama was the first American state to be a finalist in the history of the awards competition. Sentell is past president of Travel South USA, a 12-state, 55-year-old tourism trade organization based in Atlanta. The organization recently presented Sentell with its first ever Visionary Award for uniting the region under one topic.
Most importantly, the level of spending from tourists has grown during Sentell’s tenure. Spending by visitors to Alabama has tripled from six billion dollars in 2003 when he began to 18 billion dollars last year. The number of visitors is growing by one million people a year while expenditures increase by a billion dollars a year.
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 masters in fine arts. After a generation without family members at Auburn, he is delighted that grandchildren of both of his sisters are freshmen on campus.