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An Indiana Oasis at Small Market Meetings Conference

Since the 1840s, visitors have been congregating in the twin southern Indiana towns of French Lick and West Baden to bathe in the area’s mineral-rich waters. These unusual sulfur springs were exploited for their medical benefits, and as years went by, people seeking relief for what ailed them began frequenting spas that would become world-famous. Over the decades, French Lick and West Baden, both surrounded by the Hoosier National Forest, also became known for a wide variety of other fun attractions and activities that have greatly widened the towns’ appeal.

The French Lick Resort consists of two separate historic hotels about a mile apart. The French Lick Springs Hotel was opened in 1901 and today features 443 guest rooms and suites. The West Baden Springs Hotel, opened a year after its partner, offers 243 guest rooms and suites and is known for its spectacular lobby and atrium. The restored hotels are anything but stuffy and boast all of the modern amenities guests expect. The resort has also opened a new 71-room hotel called Valley Tower with easy access to the French Lick Springs Hotel.

By the middle of the 20th century, the hotels had fallen into disrepair. But Cook Medical, a worldwide company that manufactures medical devices, came to the rescue. The company has deep roots in Indiana with its headquarters in nearby Bloomington. Cook Medical partnered with other entities but primarily funded a massive renewal of the old hotels that began in 1996 and that was completed in 2007. The result, to say the least, is spectacular.

“The hotels were restored to the tune of $600 million, all done by the Cook family,” said Kristal Painter, the executive director of Visit French Lick West Baden, the local convention and visitors bureau. “It was voted the best historic resort in the U.S. by Historic Hotels of America and is listed on the National Historic Register. We like to describe what we have as European elegance in southern Indiana.”

In 2015, the two hotel properties were reunited.

Meeting planners from across the country, as well as the destination providers that hope to invite them to their cities and towns, will gather at the French Lick Resort October 4-6 for the 2020 Small Market Meetings Conference. First-time visitors to the resort are in for a treat.

Planners can choose from among many meeting options available at the resort. Whether it is a company department meeting, a board meeting, an executive retreat or a large convention, the Event Center at the French Lick Springs Hotel can accommodate it with flexible room plans and all the necessary catering and audio and visual equipment. An exhibition hall, ballrooms, several pavilions and a mansion are available for gatherings. In addition, meeting rooms are available at the neighboring West Baden Springs Hotel.

Away from the resort, interesting and uncommon venues, such as the Legend of French Lick Boutique Hotel and Resort, which used to be basketball hall-of-famer Larry Bird’s estate, are available for meetings. Bird grew up in the area and was affectionately known as the hick from French Lick. Or meeting attendees can use a local adventure hotel with an indoor water park, a marina at a nearby lake and the local scenic railroad, to name a few attractions.

Resort Activities

For many years, people poured into the area to take advantage of the unusual mineral water springs and the spas that developed around them. With the property restorations, visitors have even more reasons to come for a relaxing escape. The spa at West Baden is a two-level layout with 12 treatment rooms that cover 28,000 square feet and boasts Old World luxury and European influences. The spa at French Lick has 28 rooms and offers the best classic American features. At either site, guests can enjoy massages, facials and cleansing scrubs; work out in a fitness room; or take a dip in a pool.

There is plenty to do on the resort properties, which are serviced by a 24-hour-a-day trolley that runs between the two hotels. There is fine and casual dining available on-site. Several championship-level golf courses challenge players as they traverse the gently rolling hillsides. The French Lick Casino is a Vegas-style entertainment palace full of gaming, fun and excitement.

The indoor and outdoor swimming pools are popular, as are the bowling alley and the stables for horseback riding and carriage trips. Guests can also rent bikes or hike trails for exercise and nature viewing in the forest. Wine lovers will be happy to know about the French Lick Winery and Vintage Café. The tasting bar offers as many as 30 different wines of all types, including sweet, dry and sparkling varieties.

Besides the beautiful historic hotels, guests may decide to stay at any of the nearby cottages, cabins, condos, bed-and-breakfasts and other inns.

Railroading has been a big deal in Indiana over the past 150 years. And one remnant of that era is just as popular as ever in the local communities. The French Lick Scenic Railway provides old-fashioned entertainment on the rails, with dinner excursions that last two and a half hours, scenic trips into the Hoosier National Forest, exciting Wild West train holdups, a dinosaur adventure train ride and trips that feature chocolate and bourbon tastings. But the Scenic Railway’s most sought-after event — and the one that always sells out the fastest — is the Polar Express trip, which delights children and adults alike and brings the famed book and movie to life. The trips are offered throughout November and December.

Regional Activities

Many consider the French Lick Resort to be the hub of southern Indiana. Some visitors stay at the resort but then take off for day trips to the many sites and attractions elsewhere in the region.

“You’ve got Amish communities directly west, the caves region to the east,” said the CVB’s Painter. “There is Spring Mills State Park to the north of us, and there’s the limestone architecture near Bloomington and Columbus, as well as the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, where you can tour the grounds, attend Mass and see the nuns who live there. We help promote attractions that are an hour or less from us.”

Another highlight of the region is beautiful Patoka Lake, the second-largest man-made lake in Indiana. Visitors enjoy taking scenic boat rides on the lake to view wildlife and see the scenery. Boat trips may include dinner or lunch, and there are midday or sunset cruises available. Viewing is especially nice from the boat’s upper deck. Expert narrators make the ride even more informative and fun.

Another fascinating destination between Paoli and French Lick is Wilstem Wildlife Park, which is spread out over more than 1,000 acres. Here, visitors can have encounters with elephants, a giraffe, kangaroos, a grizzly bear, lemurs and more. With special arrangements, a guest may even get the VIP treatment by participating up close in the animals’ daily routines.

“There are three African elephants with which you can have close encounters, and that includes an educational component,” said Painter. “Or you can take the experience a step further for a more intimate level of engagement and actually help feed or bathe the elephants.”

There is a 5,000-foot zip line with nine lines available for canopy tours on the ranch. Guests can also go on one-hour, side-by-side all-terrain-vehicle tours that are led by a guide. In addition, guests can saddle up and do some horseback riding.

Dan Dickson

Dan has been a communicator all his professional life, first as an award-winning radio and TV news reporter for two decades and then as a communications director for several non-profits for another decade. He has contributed to The Group Travel Leader Inc. publications since 2007.