Auburn University honored Alabama tourism director Lee Sentell for his career achievements with a major award during a sold-out gala that raised more than $500,000 to benefit the school’s hospitality management program.
Dean Susan Hubbard noted that under Sentell’s leadership the state’s annual tourism revenue has grown from $6 billion to some $20 billion, with the state ranking among the top six states in recent percentage growth.
Dr. David Bronner, the CEO of the state’s pension funds, said “Sentell transformed Alabama from a pass-through state to a must-visit destination” and called for a standing ovation as Sentell reached the podium.
Sentell thanked the university for his educational experiences, including service on the campus newspaper, that prepared him for a career encompassing journalism and tourism marketing. He thanked tourism industry leaders Patti Culp from Montgomery and Judy Ryals from Huntsville for their friendship and guidance. He credited Birmingham advertising executive Ed Mizzell, another Auburn graduate, for the partnership in Alabama is the first state ever honored by the International Tourism and Travel Awards in London. The award came for creating the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage status in 2024.
Students in Auburn’s hospitality event design course were responsible for organizing, marketing and facilitating the gala while working with the leadership at the Hotel at Auburn University. The honoree congratulated the dozens of students who endured the challenges of the COVID pandemic and two postponements.
Sentell fondly remembered meeting Eufaula innkeeper Tony Rane in 1980 during the first state tourism conference he attended. He noted that the university’s soon-to-open Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center “will transform the industry’s education and training of future hospitality and culinary employees.” The 142,000-square-foot structure is unique in that it will blend an innovative learning environment with a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant, he said, adding that no other college facility has a teaching hotel, teaching restaurant, a range of classrooms, demonstration and food production laboratories, a food hall, wine appreciation center, distilled spirits center and brewing science lab under one roof.
He received the Horst Schulze Award for Excellence in Hospitality, named in honor of the co-founder and former president of the internationally renowned Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Schulze’s West Paces Hotel Group manages the Auburn University Hotel and Dixon Conference Center where the gala was held. Sentell was congratulated by the university board of trustee members Jimmy Rane and Caroline Aderholt, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl and some 400 other attendees.
Three generations of his family have been educated at Auburn, he said, beginning with his father J.W. Sentell and aunt Mae Dell Sentell in the 1930s. He and his brother Johnie followed in the 1960s. Great-nephews David and Daniel Scharf and great-niece Melissa Kleman are the current generations.