Lee Sentell has served as director of the Alabama Tourism Department since January 2003, and is the longest serving director in its history. His tourism career has spanned more than 30 years. After serving as city editor of The Decatur Daily, he became the first director of the Decatur Tourism Bureau. He was director of marketing at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville during the first decade of Space Camp and was director of tourism at the Huntsville Convention & Visitors Bureau. He serves on a number of tourism-related boards and authored a travel guide, “The Best of Alabama.” He took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Alabama Living. – Lenore Vickrey
You worked in newspapers before you got into tourism marketing. How did your newspaper career prepare you for what you’re doing now?
My first boss at The Decatur Daily taught me, “Tell me a story.” Southerners are instinctively born storytellers. That’s why Kathryn Tucker Windham, Harper Lee and Rick Bragg have been so successful. Whether you’re talking about our annual Vacation Guide or a magazine ad, we try to lure people in by making them part of the narrative. We want them to picture themselves relaxing at the beach or visiting a state park or going fishing.
You’ve come up with some great campaigns (Year of Alabama Food, Year of Alabama Makers, etc.) to promote our state. How do you get your ideas?
When Gov. Bob Riley appointed me to this job I wanted to do campaigns that newspapers would want to cover. I picked themes that corresponded to sections in daily newspapers: food, sports, gardens, sports and outdoors and so forth. Our most successful ones were “Small Towns and Downtowns” in 2010 and “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” One of my personal favorites is the Alabama Bass Trail. I’m from a small town and I’m happy when somebody tells me how fishing tournaments have helped their town. We’ve won a lot of national awards, but the important thing is we create jobs.
What’s your favorite place to visit in Alabama? (I know, they all are. But please try to narrow it down.)
I grew up in Ashland with a population of 1,500 so I love towns with strong local shopping. I love Cullman because of the architectural antiques place. Mentone and Fort Payne have a relaxing mountain atmosphere. Baldwin County has a good collection of small towns. The building in Andalusia where Hank Williams married Audrey is still standing. We put up a historic marker there.
Are you partial to any particular food that’s identified with, or made in, Alabama? Have you eaten all the foods on the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama list?
Alabama grows better tomatoes than any other state. I love fried chicken, okra, black eyed peas, potato salad and sliced tomatoes. I doubt anybody has eaten everything on our 100 Dishes list because we update it every year. I’m proud of our Barbecue Hall of Fame. It includes all of the cafes that have been open 50 years.
What’s the one thing that sets Alabama apart from other parts of the U.S., as a unique place for visitors?
When people visit Alabama for the first time they always comment on two things. They remark on the beauty of our state’s landscape and the friendliness of the people. They say they’ve heard of Southern hospitality and now know that it is real.