Anything Korean has been in vogue for several years now, hot off the heels of local pop culture that has been successfully exported overseas — movies, television dramas, songs, high-tech gadgets, food and fashion.
It is now time for the home turf to collect. First in line is the national capital, Seoul, which aims to convert the latent global interest to propel the 600-year-old city into the top five convention-hosting cities in the world by 2010, putting it in league with leading Asian convention cities such as Hongkong and Singapore.
“We have to put Seoul under the radar of event planners and organisers abroad and let them discover that the city has the expertise, infrastructure and attractions that are needed to host international events,” says Kyung-Hwa Byun, director of the convention marketing team at the Seoul Convention & Visitors Bureau (SCVB). To do just that, SCVB sponsored a two-and-a-half-day familiarisation trip for 30 international event planners and organisers attending the IT&CM China in early April.
To move up the global ranking, Seoul must be able to lure major international conventions to beef up its numbers and raise its credentials. But COEX, the capital’s premier convention and exhibition centre, is caught walking a tightrope.
“We can’t capture the demand as it comes because of their short lead times. Most international MICE customers coming to us are planning for their incentive-based events within the calendar year when their budgets are decided, by which time most of our spaces are booked, if not reserved, for two years or more in advance,” observes Carole Hillson, international marketing manager at COEX. “It is unfortunate that COEX is so popular with the domestic market.”
Nevertheless, the COEX is building a new 800-seat art hall for staging of cultural performances, aimed at enabling busy conference delegates to squeeze in a historical Korean experience in a jam-packed itinerary. The 54,43-square-metre facility hosts an average of 50 major conferences a year. This year, it will host its biggest to date – the Asia Pacific Life Insurance Congress in June for 8,000 delegates.
But other venue options are rising in the city and they are picking up the slack. Hotels in particular are in the forefront. The Shilla Seoul has been the site for some high-profile events of companies such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Prada, Estée Lauder, HP and Google among others. The hotel holds between 25 and 35 events per month.
Sunny Kook, event sales manager at The Shilla Seoul, says they are mulling over the introduction of a room and meeting package – which is not a standard industry practice in Korea – later in the year.
“Corporate clients these days are asking for ‘packages’ as it is more efficient – instead of providing them with an itemised bill with separate costs for rooms, conference facilities and F&B consumption. They would prefer to know the cost per head inclusive of accommodation, meeting rooms, etc,” he notes.
Seoul-based People-X, a Professional Conference Organiser (PCO) specialising in medical travel conferences, points out non-traditional venues such as university meeting halls and auditoriums have proved to be an effective alternative, setting the right tone for an academic-oriented event.
“Most of our clients are focused more on the content of their conference, so we help cut spending on inconsequential items on the budget to enable the organisers to have quality speakers and materials,” say company CEO Hwa-Jung Lee.
Intercom Convention Services, the PCO for the annual World Knowledge Forum, notes that outside COEX, there are also other convention facilities equipped to handle large-scale events.
“This was not the case six or seven years ago. Now, we even have convention centres in other places like Busan, Incheon, Gyeonggi-do and Daegu that are built to handle the MICE business,” says Joyce Kim, who works at the Intercom’s Communication/Strategic Planning Department.
The company handles between 20 and 30 international conferences annually with the number of participants reaching upwards of 1,000. This year’s notables include the 38th World Scout Conference, OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Future of the Internet Economy and the World Women’s Forum among others.
Packaging an experience
Kim notes the shift of Korean PCOs toward a more strategic role with a hand in the design of the entire programme.
“From a purely execution and operational role, we are being challenged to be innovative and creative, particularly in the area of promotions. We have to take the overall concept of an event and bring that to pore in the brochures, posters, down to the stage designs.”
An increasing part of the job is tie-in post-conference tours – with activities that relate closely to the theme of the conference.
“We actually arranged for a medical facility post-conference tour, doing site inspections in two different facilities. The availability of fast trains allowed us to visit institutions outside Seoul.
But, of course, where foreign visitors are involved, the conventional sightseeing tours like a trip to the DMZ and movie location tour are very popular,” Kim adds.
Meanwhile, Yoo-Seok Kim, deputy director of the Korea Convention Association, says Seoul and other cities should look beyond the conference and exhibition sectors, adding that they should look beyond association-hosted events.
“Korea is really weak in corporate meetings and incentive travels. I believe event planners and organisers need to tap the huge potential of these sectors to grow the Korean MICE market.”
Korean Air and Asiana Airlines have direct flights to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, linking the Korean capital from virtually any point in the world.
Korean Air offers an airport limousine service that takes visitors to major hotels and destinations around the city. The bus ride to the city takes about 90 minutes. For visitors with connecting domestic flights, the company has shuttle bus services, which take them to Seoul Gimpo Airport in around 60 minutes.
Both Korean Air and Asiana have multiple daily flights to Jeju Island, and international direct flights from several Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese cities are now available. KAL also runs the airport shuttle bus service to major hotels and business facilities in the island.
Citizens of many Asia-Pacific countries do not need visas for trips less than 30 days. Check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website at www.mofat.go.kr
The country has four distinct seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter. To pack appropriate clothing, check weather temperature before you leave.
Korean is the official language. English street signs are now common. A growing number of young people are now proficient in foreign languages, notably English, Chinese and Japanese. Korea has about 2,400 BBB (Before Babel Brigade) volunteers who are fluent in 17 languages and are available on a single telephone number.
Email the Korea Tourism Organization at www.tour2korea.com
Jeju Island whose 1,950-metre Mount Halla is South Korea’s highest peak — has been steadily earning notches as a world-class convention and exhibition destination with the opening of its seven-storey ICC Jeju in 2003.
ICC has fuelled the island’s economic growth spurt by hosting 900 events in five years, among them the annual PATA Conference, the Bayer Healthcare Annual Conference, 2007 AD Asia and the ASTA World Travel Conference.
“We are averaging about 200 events in a year,” says Yu-Kyung Oh, manager at the ICC strategic and planning department. “There is a lot of room for growth.”
Famous for its scenic beauty with its lava tube cave systems finally getting recognition as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site last year, ICC is using Jeju’s unique attractions to slide into the crowded events calendar of corporate meetings and conference organisers.
“Many of our conference programmes include itineraries for sight-seeing, adventure and team-building activities around Jeju. We are working closely with DMCs based on the customers’ interests and expectations,” says Oh.
Jeju is a place where business and leisure are meant to be enjoyed in equal portions. Corporate event planners and organisers scouring for unique locations on their maps should give the island a second look as it remains one of Korea’s hidden jewels. Aside from nature’s gifts, Jeju has a distinct character with a rich culture all on its own.
“For meetings and incentive travels, the island is an ideal destination for those who do not want to sacrifice material comforts while enjoying the both serenity and the rugged adventure of the great outdoors,” says Victor Ryashent, CEO of Jeju Eco Tours.
The fact that most overseas visitors have to break their trip with a stop-over in Seoul is a major deterrent. It is a challenge many on the island hope would be resolve with time. The island now has direct flights from mainland China, Japan and Taiwan.
“Many overseas guests initially had raised eyebrows over the hassle of a broken flight, but once they’ve been here., they always say they want to come back,” says Paul Kim, marketing team assistant manager at The Shilla Jeju.
With spacious interiors and with its front and backyard rimmed by verdant gardens with fabulous ocean view, The Shilla is a popular venue for its ability to transform its surroundings to imbibe in style the chosen corporate event theme.
“Whether an event is held indoors and outdoors, companies are always for a new look for their events to build up their brands. We are fortunate to have flexible venues that allow our clients to design and configure according to their imagination.”
But Kim notes that the pressure in providing value-added services to meetings and banquet services – from the nitty-gritty details of a table centrepiece to the design, look and texture of the table menu.
“And we train our staff to deliver service with a personal touch to different ourselves. We do keep records of past events, so if you have had a function in our hotel before we would at least be able to anticipate some of your needs,” says Kim, who was at the helm of all the execution and preparation for both welcome reception and gala dinner of the recently-concluded Ballantine’s Championship, the first-ever European Golf Tournament to be held in Korea. The tournament was held in Jeju in mid-March.
Being on their toes certainly is the best course with a lot of competitors knocking its doors. In fact, another 600-room hotel is now being built beside the ICC Jeju at the rapidly developing Jungmun Resort Complex.
Grand Hyatt Seoul
Sitting atop historic Mount Namsan on a 7.28-ha land of waterfalls and landscaped gardens, Grand Hyatt Seoul offers a majestic view of the Seoul skyline. Experts in delivering high-powered events and meetings, this mountain-top jewel offer customised events that blend business with leisure with a special spa package and an above-grade culinary experience from its eclectic selection of dining outlets.
The Shilla Seoul
The Shilla Seoul is the arbiter of luxury – Korean style. All its spacious banquet and function rooms are fitted with the latest technology that defines 21st-century meetings and corporate events. But its undisputed showstopper is its incomparable Yeong Bin Gwan, a Korean royal house which has been converted into a banquet annex. Located within The Shilla Seoul sprawling grounds, this architectural homage to Korea’s Shilla period is a popular venue for corporate events seeking a traditional Korean touch.
Lotte Hotel Seoul
Accessibly located in the middle of downtown Seoul, the Lotte Hotel Seoul has yet to fully emerge from the chrysalis of renovation aimed at luring the big corporate spenders to its doorsteps. By the end of the five-year renovation period, all its 1,500 rooms would have received a rejuvenating facelift with each floor adapting the distinct colour and design theme of one of four international interior design houses commissioned to give the hotel a new look. With all that capacity, visitors can expect mega-sized ballrooms and meeting rooms that can be configured to precise requirements
The Westin Chosun Seoul
Sandwiched by major historical and modern landmarks is both a boon and a bane for The Westin Chosun Seoul Hotel. Its proximity to the Blue House, City Hall, the ancient palaces of Deoksugung and Gyeongbokgung, as well as to the imposing financial edifices are strong magnets. But its unique location means government building zone regulations prevent any vertical and horizontal expansion that would alter the visual symmetry of the area.
But this does not break the business hotel’s strides. With corporate clients willing to pay a premium for events and meeting places in downtown Seoul, The Westin Chosun Seoul is remapping its public areas to have more room for meetings and business facilities.
Lotte Hotel World
Located near the Seok-Chon lake in Seoul, Lotte Hotel World is part of the sprawling Lotte World recreation complex which is famed for its indoor theme park and outdoor amusement park, shopping malls, duty free shop, sports facilities, cinemas and live theater. This man-made enchantment was completed a major upgrade to the tune of KRW65 billion (US$66.39 million).
With its eight function rooms and eight dining outlets, the 469-room hotel is an accessible venue alternative for events looking for an out-of–the-ordinary ambience.
The Shilla Jeju
Home to the first The Guerlain Spa in Asia, this 429-room hotel is located in the up market Jungmun Resort Complex. Five-star amenities for business and leisure are easily within reach. For art connoisseurs, a simple walkabout becomes a gallery tour with over 400 masterpieces from Salvador Dali’s Space Venus to Choi Jong Tae’s The Face in prominent display.
Its vast beautiful gardens and well-trod wooden walkway to Jungmun Beach offer numerous panoramic vistas, providing the inspiration for outdoor themed functions.
The SEAES Hotel & Resort
Conveniently located near the ICC Jeju, this 26-room hotel has a quaint, transcendent charm not found in your typical hotel. All rooms are single-detached, one-storey unit built in the style of traditional Jeju cottages and are scattered around this small resort featuring well-kept natural greens and a spectacular seaview.
Private and secluded, this gem in the rapidly developing Jungmun area offers unique rooms with that homey yet distinctly Korean feel. For those who want to step back in time, a two-bedroom traditional Korean hut house with its outdoor pool is irresistible.
Jeju Grand Hotel
A convenient 10-minute drive from the airport, this 512-hotel in Jeju City has one major draw. The Ora Country, an international-level golf course with 36 holes, at the nearby Yongguchunwha Valley lets visitors practice their putts 360-days a year.
PCOs and DMCs
PEOPLE – X (Seoul)
Contact: Hwa-Jung Lee, CEO
INTERCOM CONVENTION SERVICES, INC (Seoul)
Contact: Joyce Kim, Communication/Strategic Planning Department
JEJU ECO TOUR (Jeju)
Contact: Victor Ryashent, CEO
Contact: Carole Hillson, international marketing manager
Contact: Yu-Kyung Oh, manager, Strategic & Planning Department