Seoul has two faces. To the outside world, what is easily seen is the city’s conservative character, while the fun creative side – for the most part – stays hidden, waiting to be coaxed into the light.
In the business events industry, the ability to deliver “an experience” is as crucial as providing venues and meeting facilities that are on a par with international standards. Being able to break barriers to creativity may spell success or failure to Seoul’s quest to become one of the top five business events destinations in the world.
“Meetings here tend to conform. ‘This is how it’s always been done’ is an oft-repeated mantra. Creativity is an emerging notion that has come in from the West. It is a new concept here but they are learning,” says Maureen O’Crowley, senior director, international marketing and conventions, Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB).
She recalls that when industry association Meeting Planners International (MPI) recently organised a workshop in Seoul, it asked participants to put together a dream programme with the assumption of an unlimited budget. The result, she adds, was an eye-opener.
“Once you’ve given them the freedom to do it differently, then you really see the creativeness coming out of the closet. It exists. You just have to break out of that box and, once you do, the possibilities are limitless.”
From its inception two years ago, SCB has been on a mission to elevate the standing of the 600-year-old capital city as an attractive destination for meetings and incentives.
Crowley points out that Seoul’s business events industry gets a significant boost from the domestic market. But the focus now is on getting international events to be hosted in the city.
“Regionally, we are doing very well. The Asian market knows Korea and we do not have to work so hard to educate them and say that we are here. There is not a lot of resistance because it is not such a long trip to make. The harder sell is to ask North Americans and Europeans to take a 14-hour trip to a destination that they are not quite sure of. But what we really need is to expand our long-haul markets,” Crowley says.
When touching base with event organisers from North America and Europe, Crowley finds one of two things: South Korea either draws a total blank or the Korean War in the 1950s comes to mind.
“One time, we met with young Swedish tour operators in their 30s whose country did not have any involvement in that war and the war was on their top of mind, where Korea is concerned. Economists worldwide have recognised [South] Korea’s growth but it does not translate to the rest of the world. We have to change the perception.”
The appeal of arts and entertainment
Overseas companies and their event organisers are aware that Seoul has the room inventory, the meeting space and other facilities needed to host a wide range of events. Beyond that, they are looking for extra hooks that will put levity and memorable moments in their itinerary.
For those who bother to look below the surface, Seoul is not just an Asian economic powerhouse but also a pop culture trendsetter in Asia-Pacific. The “Korean Wave” that exploded in the early 2000s has spawned interest in Korean music, television dramas, food, fashion and more.
Local destination management companies (DMCs) have been using the strong influence of this pop culture phenomenon to spice up programmes designed for Asian groups visiting the city. For instance, a tour of film locations used in famous Korean drama series has been quite a hit.
“Groups from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are more into sightseeing and shopping if they have some downtime in-between meetings or if their schedule includes a pre- or post-event programme,” says Ji-Weon Hwang, Southeast Asia team manager at Hanatour International. “If we wanted to put something cultural in the programme, it has to be something modern.”
In contrast, groups from the Americas and Europe lean more towards traditional cultural performances. Korea House, a complex of Joseon Dynasty-era structures, is a preferred venue for long-haul groups as it is a repository of time-tested Korean cuisine, arts and crafts. Groups can enjoy a banquet in the style of the Korean royal house while watching costumed shows featuring folk music and dance.
Jessica Chun, the Americas and Europe team general manager at Hanatour International, says: “It really depends on the preference of each group. For first-timers to the city, something traditional and cultural such as the Korean fan dance and the SamulNori (see page 42) are the norm. For those who go for energetic performances, there are the contemporary nonverbal acts such as Nanta and Jump (see page 42). For something really different, we can get a five-member orchestra to play Western classical music for a group of 200 aboard a chartered boat during a one-and-a-half hour dinner, while cruising the Han River.”
Across the capital, entertainment producers are mounting extra performances exclusively for corporate groups, which are mostly timed outside the regular scheduled run.
The 13-year old Nanta, which is being staged in three permanent theatres in Seoul, has between three and eight private shows a month. Some are performed in its theatres and others are played at a corporate event’s exclusive venue.
“To hire the entire theatre, we require a minimum of 200 people. We have four theatres in Korea, so it is easy for groups to enjoy the show at their convenience anytime,” says Hweon Kyung Pak, Nanta marketing manager. “But the biggest consideration that the event organiser has to think about is who their audience is and how they can promote their event with Nanta.”
Groups booking for a private performance can opt for additional perks such as pre- or post-show cocktails, a meet-and-greet with the cast, brand logos in souvenirs and more.
“There are companies that try to have their products placed onstage as part of the show,” Pak recalls. “One bag manufacturer wanted to replace our drums with their bags to demonstrate how durable they are. Others wanted to change the story to suit their own taste. We had to say no to these changes.”
Unlike Nanta, Miso (Beautiful Smile) cannot be performed outside the 250-seat Chongdong Theater, where it plays twice daily. Miso claims to be the first original Korean musical, a traditional love story with a happy ending. But the show producer also puts on exclusive performances for corporate groups.
“Recently, we had a special show attended by members of the foreign embassies here in Seoul. Before the curtain rose, a group of 100 guests enjoyed cocktails in an outdoor space within our premises. Outside catering had to be commissioned, but a pre-show event can be arranged if requested,” says Gi-Na Shin of the Chongdong Theater’s performance planning division.
Jay Youn Joo, chief executive officer of Nanjang Cultures Inc, which produces the acclaimed SamulNori, says their cast has no problem with mounting the show anywhere.
“SamulNori started as a travelling troupe playing at cultural festivals around the world. It was only recently that we had our permanent theatre here at the Gwangwamum Art Hall in Seoul. The show is designed for outdoor performances and we even have two ensembles – one assigned here and the other for offsite. We are different from the rest because this is the last authentic Korean music. ”
While proud of the genre’s heritage, Joo says SamulNori performers have shared the stage with contemporary artists for events hosted by companies such as BMW.
Choosing the right show
Event organisers in Seoul get the lowdown on the city’s latest entertainment acts from the Seoul Tourism Organization, which they say is very good at providing regular updates. They add that show suppliers also knock on their doors to promote their new offerings.
Doo Youn Hwang, president of US Travel, says his company gets a lot of invitations to preview a show.
“We [go to] see it, but we wait six months to a year before we start to sell and include it in our programme. We want to make sure that they have staying power. We recommend what is popular.”
Hwang notes that conferences and meetings held in Seoul leave very little room for delegates to enjoy extracurricular activities. For most events, they only allot – on average – half an hour for entertainment during both the welcome and farewell dinner. That is why US Travel is finicky about the shows it endorses to corporate clients.
“Entertainment is always optional. It is not easy to tack entertainment onto an event programme. A show costs between US$100 and US$120 per person, inclusive of dinner. If you are booking a private performance, you have to factor in several variables like transportation, the number of people who are coming and the size of the entertainment.”
Chun of Hanatour International advises that, for a private performance to work, the group must have a minimum size of 80 to 100 people.
“Usually, we use the regular performance. But if the client insists on a private one, it can easily be arranged, but it is difficult to get competitive prices. Performance costs in Seoul are very high compared to other destinations.”
Think outside the box
To find entertainment that will make an impact, an event organiser can opt for a show – specially created and designed – to have an emotional resonance with the group.
“We had a Philippine-based group from L’Oreal for which we arranged something unique. We created a cosmetic fashion show in a venue outside Seoul. We had the models in traditional costumes and make up. It was a big success. The company came back for a second visit, then, we hired an entire club at Itaewon for the 120-person group for a night-long karaoke session,” Chun says.
For Joe Gwi Nam Cho, deputy general manager for the inbound sales team, Hanjin Travel, on top of his wish list is to get one of his future groups to experience the vigorous and free-spirited nightlife scene in Seoul’s Hongdae university district. It is a place where one finds the city’s trendy pulse.
“Here, you find people in quirky attires, expressing themselves through fashion. Every last Friday of the month, buying one ticket gives you access to all the clubs in the area free of charge.”
However, there is one catch for the right to de-stress in this place: no suits allowed.
“This rule does not apply to foreigners, of course, but to blend in, one is best advised to dress down. For locals, however, an age limit is imposed, which poses a challenge if the groups include Seoulites.”
Jessica Chun, the Americas and Europe team general manager, Hanatour International
“One October a few years ago, we held an event at Everland, the largest amusement park in Korea which is only an hour outside Seoul. The event coincided with the park’s annual Halloween Festival. We arranged a private dinner at the Rose Garden and our group was very impressed with the Halloween parade and the laser show. We only paid the entrance fee and the dinner. It was good to pick entertainment within the season. It would have cost us KRW4 million (US$3,434) to KRW5 million (US$4,293) to put this together ourselves. But we were able to do it at almost half the price.”
Incheon International Airport is South Korea’s main gateway, with 49 airlines generating 455 international flights daily to connect the country to 161 cities around the world.
A valid visa must be obtained before arrival. Citizens of some 99 countries can enter without one if the length of stay is either 30 days or 90 days. For details on visa requirements, visit the Korea Immigration Service website at www.immigration.go.kr.
Seoul has four distinct seasons. August is the hottest month, with a daily average temperature of 29.5°C, and the coldest is January when the mercury drops to around freezing point. Summer months are humid and wet, while it is chilly and dry in winter. The best time to visit is during spring (April and May) when the cherry blossoms are out and during autumn (September to November) when the weather is sunny and the sky is cobalt blue.
Korean is the official language. English street signs are now common. Most young Koreans and urban professionals have a basic knowledge of English, Chinese or Japanese. The country has nearly 3,000 BBB (Before Babel Brigade) volunteers who are fluent in 17 languages and are available on a single telephone number, tel 1588 5644
Seoul Convention Bureau
ISLAND OF SPLENDOUR
Ditching its image as a honeymoon resort island, Jeju is being vigorously transformed into a business events destination, writes Gigi Onag
Jeju Island, located southeast of mainland South Korea and an hour away by air from the capital Seoul, has come a long way from being the favourite destination of local urbanites looking for a quick, short getaway.
The past decade has seen rapid progress come to the island, accelerated further by Jeju’s creation as a Special Self-Governing Province on July 1, 2006. In recent years, tourism has been a growing contributor to the economy’s coffers, with latest visitor arrivals on track to reach seven million by year-end. But the goal is now to broaden the market mix to include more conferences, meetings and incentives from the mainland and overseas.
In the first quarter of 2010, the 64 domestic and international conferences held on Jeju had a ripple effect, generating about KRW1.1 billion (US$944,457) throughout the island’s economy.
This third quarter, Jeju is set to handle one of its largest groups ever – 9,000 members of Amway Korea will arrive in seven waves, each batch staying for four days and three nights.
“We have been doing well. Five years ago, I visited a lot of MICE trade shows to introduce Jeju Island. Many corporate buyers have held their meeting here since then,” says Chundo Yang, head of marketing at Jeju Convention and Visitors Bureau (JCVB). “Now, when I go overseas to see event organisers, I am telling them how the island has improved.”
The primary challenge, he says, is to add more direct flights to the island. To date, Jeju International Airport only connects to nine major Asian cities located in Japan, China and Taiwan. The airport is currently being expanded to accommodate growing passenger traffic.
“Overseas groups bypassing Seoul get visa-free entry, so flying straight to the island makes it easy for event organisers. As an autonomous province, we are able to waive visa requirements to citizens of 184 countries.”
A new infrastructure to support the destination’s MICE ambitions is already on the drawing board. Korean hotel chain Lotte, which already has a property in the upscale Jungmun resort complex, will be building two more hotels, while the Berjaya hotel chain of Malaysia has entered a local joint venture to build its first property in Seogwipo-si. There are now a total of 22,855 guestrooms in Jeju, with an additional 3,000 expected to come online soon. Meanwhile, ICC Jeju is eyeing a new extension that will expand this 4,500-capacity convention centre.
Keen to become a serious contender as a business events hub, the island’s public and private sectors have got together to prop up the soft services that are required to deliver international calibre events and programmes. In September, a joint training workshop – expected to be the first in a series – was conducted to upgrade the skills of everyone involved in the events industry. One of the main objectives is to empower these events professionals to be creative.
“Our population is a little more than half a million. The challenge is not only attracting fresh talent to join the events business; we need to ensure they get the right training,” Yang notes.
Formed by the eruption of an underwater volcano thousands of years ago, the island covers a total area 1,848sqkm and has largely maintained its pristine nature, despite catching up with modernisation in the 1960s.
A land of horses, green mountains, lava tube caves and waterfalls surrounded by clear blue ocean, Jeju Island is a magnet for eco-based programmes. Local DMCs are good at making the best use of nature’s gifts without compromising the environment. This is good to know, bearing in mind that the island has some of the most beautiful Unesco World Heritage sites.
“For something unique, groups can go on a submarine tour. You go underwater for 40 minutes, which is much simpler than diving. Groups can have pre-cocktail drinks before they go into the water,” says Victor Ryashentsev, director of DiscoverKorea Jejueco Travel.
He notes that it is a mistake to assume that people from Asia are only interested in urban pursuits. People in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong have sometimes just had enough of skyscrapers and are open to seeing a little bit of nature, he says.
“Sometimes, they just want to do simple things. They like to see waterfalls. They like to breathe fresh air and see some greenery.”
One of the bestsellers for groups visiting Jeju is the Olle Trail, a series of walking paths across the island, which can be done in one to two hours. Any one of these trails will give your delegates a glimpse of Jeju’s nature. Groups do not have to be on foot to enjoy a day out; options for biking and horseback riding abound.
Young-Hoon Kim, president of Mongchee Event Tour and the first to offer eco-based activities on the island, has developed an adrenaline-pumping programme for adventurous groups. Called MWB (Mountain, Walking and Biking), it challenges the group with what can be termed a kind of mini triathlon.
Mongchee can customise various activities, from scuba diving, paragliding, beach climbing and skiing to even backpacking to the lava stream.
“We always want to deliver something exciting. What’s good is that we have programmes for all seasons of the year. It takes six months to a year to develop many of our outdoor programmes, each costing an average of US$40,000 to develop,” says Kim.
For a population that is just over half a million, Jeju is teeming with museums and theme parks which can serve as interesting backdrops and venues for any event. The Jeju Museum of Art has indoor and outdoor spaces that can be hired for a gala. The one-of-its-kind Teddy Bear Museum likewise has a spacious outdoor space and a park dotted with teddy bear statues, so it can also serve as an interesting venue.
The Yachun Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Asia, welcomes temple stays where groups can experience and participate in the daily ritual of the monks. The Ma Won Restaurant in the Jungmun Complex has an attractive outdoor area that resembles a traditional Korean residential courtyard. Groups can have an interesting dinner here trying out local delicacies such as black pig and horse meat. Those who want some sea breezes can charter a boat from Yacht Tour and enjoy a meeting in the middle of the ocean. Or, groups can enjoy lunch by the waterfront at Jungmun Beach.
“Jeju Island has plenty to offer. It also has a rich culture waiting to be experienced – like visiting the folk village, going to see Jeju’s women divers on their daily tasks and dyeing their own Galot (Jeju’s traditional wear) as a souvenir,” says Ryashentsev. “It is really up to the group to decide.”
Seoul’s Top Shows
The city is never short of class acts that not only entertain but also offer glimpses into the spirit that animates the Korean culture. Below are some not-to-be-missed shows, both traditional and contemporary:
The Drawing Show: is it an art exhibit or a performance? Artists complete amazing paintings onstage, while other ingredients like music and theatre are added into the show. Over 10 art works are born on stage. Each art work is created with non-traditional drawing implements like fingers and banana peel. The artists also use unusual medium such as sand with various surfaces serving as a canvas. No two works are the same because the drawings are created together with the audience.
Contact the Drawing Show Hall at Daehangno at tel 82 766 7848
Jump is a non-verbal, comic martial arts performance that features Korean taekwondo and taekyun. The narrative is a mixed brew that includes a mysterious stranger, a love story and a robbery – all with interesting results.
Miso claims to be the first original Korean musical. The show is based on the classical Korean love story, The Tale of Chunhyang, and it is set in the time of the Chosun Dynasty. It also serves as a unique platform for showcasing Korea’s traditional dances, percussion music and pansori (traditional Korean narrative songs).
Nanta is a non-verbal show that combines traditional Korean drumbeats with a Western-style comedic stage show. The plot follows a day in a life of three chefs preparing for the evening’s wedding banquet. Set in the kitchen, the cooking crew must teach a new colleague, their manager’s nephew, to find his way among the pots and pans.
SamulNori is said to be the last bastion of authentic Korean music. Traditional Korean percussion music is played on four native Korean instruments: kkwaenggwari (a small gong), jing (a larger gong), janggu (an hourglass-shaped drum) and buk (a barrel drum similar to the bass drum). The art form is a compilation of farmers’ music, which was used to celebrate good harvests.
Contact Nanjang Cultures Inc at tel 82 2 3444 9175