Seoul should be on your shortlist

Seoul Floating Islands

Sydney Paulden reports on a visit to a fascinating and friendly city

It seems as if Korea has until now been somewhat overshadowed by the aggressive international marketing of some of its Far Eastern neighbours. But things are changing rapidly. The world of incentive and conference professionals is finding that Korea is a destination offering experiences remarkably different from any in other parts of the region.

Monday 10th to Friday 14th November 2016 was Seoul Mice Week. The Mayor of the South Korean capital city and the very active Seoul Convention Bureau set out to prove to global representatives that holding a group event in Seoul will ensure that all delegates and guests enjoy a visit packed with pleasant surprises.

ITCM was one of the media invited to participate in the activities and I can report that the week more than lived up to the promises. Seoul, I found, is an attractive and vibrant destination and very ready and willing to show what hospitality really means.

Hotel accommodation, cuisine, landscape, visitor attractions, conference facilities and the KAL flights can combine into a programme with continuous enjoyment and interest.

Although we were in Seoul for just four days, we were able to visit a wide variety of special-purpose and unusual venues, as well as a selection of the city’s visitor attractions. We are only able to dwell on a selection of them in this report.

Special about Seoul
Throughout the visit we came across interesting aspects of Korean life and manners that were previously unknown to a group consisting of British, American and French MICE commentators. I was surprised to hear one of our hosts, an American lady who lives and works in Seoul, state that she doesn’t speak the Korean language, but can read it.

In all my previous experience in the East, the opposite has been the case, with some of the spoken language being understood but the script impossible to conquer in a short time. However, the Korean script looks as if it is hieroglyphic, like Chinese, but in fact it is phonetic, with each dash and twirl representing a given sound.

I was also taken aback to discover that I was considered to be two years older in Korea than in the UK. The reason is that a new baby is one year old on the day it is born. It doesn’t have to wait 12 months for its first birthday. Furthermore, no matter when it is born during the year, its second birthday is on January 1st.

As a group we knew nothing about ‘kimchi’ but found it was part of almost every Korean-style meal we ate on the trip.

Kimchi is a fermentation of vegetables, mainly cabbage but also radishes and cucumbers and suchlike. Many of the families make their own and the huge earthenware pots, reminiscent of the Ali Baba stories where pots are large enough to hide a grown person, can be seen everywhere. They are used to store the vegetables during fermentation, which are then prepared in so many different ways with different combinations and spices, that it is possible, apparently, to name over 180 varieties of this Korean foodstuff.

It has gained such acclaim in the modern world, after many hundreds of years in the making, that kimchi has been awarded cultural icon status by the United Nations.

Four Seasons Hotel Seoul
Accommodation is a vital ingredient of any stay, no matter which destination is chosen by a group organiser. Seoul is able to provide a choice of top quality international hotels that leave no wish unfulfilled.

ITCM stayed at the Four Seasons in the centre of the dynamic capital city, Seoul. It was opened as recently as October 2015 and could not be more modern or more comfortable.

A 5-star property, it has 317 spacious rooms with as many as 43 suites. The 19-storey building permits views in every direction, taking in the entire city, the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the not-so-distant mountains.

The views are enhanced by the floor-to-ceiling windows in all the guestrooms. They have double blind systems that are operated by push-buttons at the bedside, where there is also full control of all the lights. The bathrooms have deep tubs. The walk-in showers and separate WC are also electronically automated.

There is a large in-room safe and free, easily accessible Wi-Fi. At the hotel we first became aware of how welcoming the Korean people are to foreign visitors and how well they all seem to speak English. Language was never a problem anywhere during our whole stay.

The hotel has seven dining rooms and bars, each with a different character. We enjoyed a memorable group welcome dinner at the Italian restaurant, Boccalino. A feature worthy of comment are the extra-large lifts easily able to accommodate wheelchairs. There is a separate button on each floor that brings them into service.

A wide range of events can be comfortably staged in the hotel, as it has a total of 2,196sqm (23,638sqft) of meeting space. The main function areas are the two ballrooms, complemented by six separate meeting rooms. Up to 500 guests can sit together at a banquet.

DDP - Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Seoul has been steadily expanding its range of conference facilities for several years and is now able to claim to be amongst the top conference cities in the world in terms of available venues. If you are in the city’s upmarket district of Dongdaemum and see what appears to be a massive and magnificent space ship that has landed amongst the fashion boutiques and department stores, this is simply the DDP.

Its design can be termed ‘neofuturistic’, with long curves of stretched bright metal structures. It was opened in March 2014 and has since rapidly gained a reputation as one of the world’s most flexible venues. It offers total space of 85,000sqm (765,000sqft) on seven levels, including three basements.

Its size can be gauged from the fact that it is built on what were previously two large sports stadia for football and baseball. The DDP is owned by the City of Seoul and was designed by the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

It is repaying its investment through the large number of events it attracts, which make a big contribution to the local economy. They range over product launches, exhibitions, conventions, concerts and, naturally in this district, fashion shows.

Floating islands
Organisers will have no problem impressing their delegates when holding an event in Seoul. There are many venues that in themselves will add to the glamour and excitement of an occasion. A feature of the city is the broad Han River and the city makes good use of it. With a total length of about 500km (over 300 miles), it flows down to the Yellow Sea. At some points in the Seoul area it is 1km wide.

Very good and unusual use is being made of the river by a city that is one of the most crowded in the world. In May 2014 a remarkable new feature was opened – a set of three artificial islands that float on the Han River in the centre of town. They are part of a project to develop the river as a source of recreation and they contribute greatly to the facilities. On these islands you can now find a convention centre, an entertainment hall, marina, restaurants and shops. There is also a Media Art Gallery with a huge LED screen for staging multimedia shows. The islands are the locations for many shows and exhibitions attended by the public and are also available as venues for private and corporate events. The dome-shaped hall can cater for up to 550 delegates. Especially at night, this is a setting unrivalled for its amazing river views.

COEX Convention & Exhibition Center
We saw COEX in action. When we visited we were amongst the 120,000 visitors to the 4-day Seoul International Cafe Show. Since it started in 2002, this event has grown and grown and now covers every aspect of coffee culture, including the raw materials, the machines, furnishings and fittings and tempting titbits, occupying over 37,000sqm (330,000sqft) on the four floors of the centre. In addition to those four halls, COEX has 48 meeting rooms and its vast basement area is one of the largest shopping malls I have ever seen, the COEX Mall.

The facility is served by three 5-star hotels and is alongside two of the city’s tube stations. It also houses an airport terminal, where passengers can check-in their bags ready for international flights.

The whole complex is run by a subsidiary of the Korea International Trade Association.

Jinkwansa Buddhist Temple
I would highly recommend a visit to the Jinkwans Buddhist Temple as part of any incentive or leisure programme in Seoul. A short drive out of town to the west, in a beautiful national park, it is one of the four main temples situated on all four sides of the city.

It was founded in 1010BC, 3,000 years ago, and is attended only by 20 Buddhist nuns. Dressed in grey robes with orange trim, one of the nuns was our hosts and explained much of the customs of the temple.

We were also served with a temple meal that, because Buddhists do not believe in harming any living creature, was strictly vegetarian. It featured, of course, varieties of kimchi that had been produced in the pots seen in some numbers around the temple premises.

An experience of this kind, without doubt, would always be a lasting memory for any group of foreign visitors.

In and around Seoul
Seoul provides continuous interest for first-time visitors. We roamed individually and safely along Insadong Street. It is ancient, picturesque, traffic-free and absorbingly interesting, as it comprises 700 metres of quaint boutiques that offer handicrafts, local attire, cosmetics, paintings and tea. There are souvenirs to be bought at all prices and cultural mini-events popping up here and there.

We were also taken to a hilly district where new houses have been built to ancient architectural styles.

Another location where we walked around freely and enjoyed unique experiences – as well as sights, sounds and smells – was the Food Market. We joined crowds of locals to watch food of every kind being prepared from every type of ingredient on scores of separate private stalls, with rows of long benches where you can just sit down and dine on the spot.

Seoul is not short of historic monuments, including the Gyeongbokgung Palace that dates from 1395. Our meals were taken in a variety of eating places. There was the traditional Korean Jinjinbara Restaurant, where I lost count of the number of different dishes that made up the lunch – all new to my palate. There was Mingles, which lives up to its name by combining international modern cuisine with ancient Korean. And our stay was brought to a dramatic finale at a restaurant serving an indoor barbecue. Our long table had a charcoal grill inset at each end that were continuously replenished with tasty cuts of meat.

Korean Air
Korean Air provided the flights for the visiting MICE group to and from each of our countries of origin. It is privately owned and the biggest carrier in South Korea.

Organisers would have no problem working with the airline to co-ordinate the gathering of delegates from all parts of the world, as it serves about 145 destinations on all continents.

The Airbus A330-200 makes light of the 10-hour flight between Europe and Korea, especially if a passenger is able to fly Prestige Class. Individual pods are extremely comfortable, with lie-flat seats and a wide range of options on the personal tv monitors. Even on economy flights, hot meals are served on plates with metal cutlery.

The economy seats are arranged as three sets of three seats per row, with two aisles.

Seoul Convention Bureau services
If organisers wonder if it would be difficult to set up and run an event in Seoul for a first time, then they should familiarise themselves with the support that is provided by Seoul Tourism. It is wide-ranging and designed in detail to ease the whole activity.

There is a Seoul Online MICE Desk accessible through It has three special sections on International Conferences & Meetings, Corporate Meetings & Incentives and Promotional Support.

For example, if a company is bringing 50 or more delegates for at least two nights, there could be a financial subsidy per person; with free services such as Seoul promotional souvenirs, airport welcoming events, ground transportation, banquets, performances, and Seoul tour programmes.

Organisers can be assured that they will be made welcome and will have so much on-the-ground support, that they can feel secure and confident in working in the city for the first time.

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