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145 Years (and Counting) of Big Business at West Baden Springs Hotel

West Baden Resort - 1878
If you’ve ever visited French Lick Resort on a large business outing or major group function, you might be surprised to know you’re part of a tradition that first started 145 years ago.

Group business has always been big business here. Particularly at West Baden Springs Hotel, where more thorough records were kept detailing the groups that visited. It’s fun to crack open the photo archives which detail some of the groups that have made West Baden a spot to meet and retreat.

Everything from the first group on record (the Mitchell, Indiana district Medical Society in the summer of 1878), to organizations you never even knew existed: the International Baby Chick Association, the National Coffee Roasters Association, the American Walnut Manufacturers’ Association ... the list goes on and on. Here’s a few more we found.

Indian Refining Company

You know you've got a big group when you fill up the entire front steps of the hotel, and then some. This is the Indian Refining Company, which eventually became part of Texaco.

The Electric Convention Group
The Electric Convention Group. During Ed Ballard's ownership of the hotel, spanning 1923-32, more than 120 conventions took place at West Baden Springs Hotel. (Those are just the ones on record, so that number is likely higher — and that doesn't even count French Lick Springs Hotel.) Starting with the prior owners of the hotel, the Sinclair family, there was a big push to promote the hotel as a meeting and convention destination, as a way to broaden the economic base beyond the traditional leisure business at the hotels and underground gambling operations throughout the community.
The American Red Cross
The American Red Cross.

Tombstone Tradeshow
Some conventions were, well, unconventional. Even a little eerie. Above, a tombstone trade show, and below, National Funeral Directors Association convention in 1925.
Hoosier Hospitality Conference

Countrywide Insurance Agents Banquet
Countrywide Insurance Agents banquet. So interesting to zoom in on some of these photos and see the little details, like the signs at the tables marking where each state delegation was seated.
Masquerade Party
Masquerade party in the atrium (above) and Rotary Club banquet and dance (below).
Rotary Club Banquet
Convention of the Beta Theta Pi fratenity
Convention of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Several fraternities and sororities visited West Baden for their annual functions throughout this era. Even back then, there were shenanigans. A fraternity that visited in 1927 did chariot races in dish carts around the atrium.

Delta Upsilon fraternity, dated August 1929.
95th annual convention of Delta Upsilon fraternity, dated August 1929.

Ladies of Crushed Stone Association.
Ladies of Crushed Stone Association.
Oil Men's Association exhibit in the atrium.
Oil Men's Association exhibit in the atrium.
Florists' Telegraph Delivery Association (FTD)
The nighttime banquet in the atrium for the Florists' Telegraph Delivery Association (FTD) was a show-stopper. For their event, FTD set up this scaled-down "flower shop" in the center of the atrium.

National Wholesale Grocers Association Convention, June 1925.
National Wholesale Grocers Association Convention, June 1925.

merchandising convention 1923
A merchandising convention setup. An industry publication in 1923 noted that "French Lick and West Baden are probably the most popularly used by trade associations outside Chicago" making it the second most popular destination of the Midwest.
Independent Growers Alliance 1929
A classic, this one: the Independent Grocers Alliance of America (IGA). This is dated September 2-6, 1929 making it one of the last major events before the October 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression brought a screeching halt not just to convention business, but hotel operations in general. An amazing image capturing the prosperity and the calm before the storm.
West Baden Convention
A few final snapshots from the heyday of conventions. Even as hotel business tailed off in the early 1930s, it continued to honor and host pre-existing convention commitments. West Baden Springs Hotel closed for a temporary pause in December 1931, then reopened in March of 1932 to accommodate conventions and Kentucky Derby reservations. West Baden Springs Hotel closed its doors for good on July 1, 1932 before reopening to a spectacular restoration 75 years later.
unnamed convention in west baden

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