Year of Natural Wonder, Not Viral Tedium

Print ad from “The Year of Natural Wonders” campaign

The largely rural or so-called “empty states” have begun to advertise their open spaces as a safety advantage in the upended world of virus crisis.

Alabama is among the states with a tourism campaign pushing natural wonders, but there is no spin on a virus, says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

“The message looks ahead, not back,” Sentell told the Wall Street Journal recently, in an article titled ‘Safe’ Becomes Rural Tourism Pitch to a Distancing Public.

The Alabama pitch is called “The Year of Natural Wonders,” a branding campaign planned well ahead of reports of a virus outbreak in China.

Sentell has overseen 12 such “Year of” campaigns, including food, small towns, the arts, barbecue, our places, music, and a three-year crescendo of bicentennial drum beats.

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A former newspaper reporter appointed to the tourism post by Gov. Bob Riley in 2003, Sentell says he saw the yearly campaign as a way to get local newspapers to cover the story by pitching to the editorial departments.

“We knew if we followed the sections of the newspapers — gardens, food, sports, outdoors — if we ran a campaign on a topic like that, they would automatically want to cover it,” Sentell explained to Business Alabama.

The yearly campaigns, says Sentell, have also been a way of spreading the tourism promotion dollars more fairly than by exclusively pitching the most visited attractions.

“We work very hard at focusing on small towns. Bob Riley and I grew up together in a small town, were in the nursery together in the First Baptist Church of Ashland. We had a dedicated interest in small towns.”

The “Year of” series also had the effect of peaking the interest of travelers who began anticipating the next year’s theme, Sentell says.

He says this year’s theme of natural wonders was suggested by the retired former head of the Alabama Department of Archives and history, Ed Bridges.

“We had a soft launch” of the campaign “in the annual vacation guide in January, but, even then we were delaying a hard launch. And we certainly didn’t think the crisis was going to impact the world the way it has,” says Sentell. “I think our timing was perfect. Other states are scrambling to be relevant, and we have been in the marketplace since January.”

Avoidance of the virus subject was a natural, he adds.

“People have been watching so many TV commercials with a COVID message, from pizza to Lincolns, they are saturated with that. It makes no sense to spend the first third of a commercial telling people about something they already know.”

The 20 natural attractions highlighted in the campaign are Cheaha Mountain, Gulf Coast Beaches, Cathedral Caverns, The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Dismals Canyon, Natural Bridge, Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, Cahaba Lilies, DeSoto Caverns, Pinhoti National Recreation Trail, Rickwood Caverns, Wetumpka Crater, Little River Canyon, Sipsey Wilderness, Red Mountain, Noccalula Falls, Walls of Jericho Trail, Bankhead National Forrest, Cahaba River and the White Cliffs of Alabama.

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