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Mind, body and Seoul: South Korea’s thriving MICE capital

In recent years, Seoul has worked hard to improve its standing as a meetings destination. Today, the South Korean capital is rightly lauded for the culture, food and events it offers business travellers

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Seoul attracts thousands of corporate travellers every year – individuals who come for a conference, but are charmed by South Korea’s food, nightlife and culture 

Seoul is a city where opposites sit comfortably alongside one another: gleaming skyscrapers stand in proximity to ancient Buddhist temples; artisan crafts jostle for attention with mass-produced pop music; and delicious meals can be purchased from Michelin-starred restaurants and modest street food stalls alike. It is a huge conurbation that feels minute because of the speed and reliability of its public transport system.

The city has many contrasting faces that maximise its attractiveness. In particular, its vibrant nightlife brings into sharp focus the famous hard-working attitude displayed by Koreans during the daytime. This approach has transformed Seoul into one of the best MICE destinations in the world. The city boasts a number of unique venues that are perfect for small-scale meetings and large conferences alike, attracting thousands of corporate travellers every year – individuals who come for a conference, but are charmed by South Korea’s food, nightlife and culture.

Sounds of the city
Seoul is one of the world’s most cutting-edge destinations; it is well connected not only in terms of high-speed internet, but also by fast and convenient transportation to and from Incheon International Airport and within the city itself. Visitors will find a wide range of local and international cuisines, friendly locals, royal palaces and all manner of convenient facilities that are open 24 hours a day. Many travellers are pleasantly surprised by just how much there is to see and do in Seoul, whatever their tastes.

Korea’s templestay programme sees many Buddhist temples offering activities catered to foreign groups looking for unique team-building opportunities

In fact, the city’s rapid growth and expansion north and south of the Han River has led to the creation of many diverse neighbourhoods. In Jongno, the oldest and most central district, tourists can find skyscrapers towering over ancient palaces, residential neighbourhoods filled with traditional Korean houses, and artistic alleyways. Across the river, Gangnam continues to set technological trends while also hosting the country’s top business events. Elsewhere, the bustling island district of Yeouido is home to Korea’s international finance activities, as well as a bright and breezy riverside park favoured by locals for sports and annual festivals.

The Gangnam district is perhaps Seoul’s most famous, having been brought into the global spotlight by South Korean entertainer Psy and his international hit ‘Gangnam Style’. However, the song is just one of a growing number of Korean pop – or K-pop – songs to garner a global following.

K-pop has taken the world by storm because it offers the music industry something completely new, exciting and uniquely Korean. Its high-energy dancing and infectious melodies, alongside strong production values and the adoption of Korea’s distinct fashion styles by artists such as BTS, make it stand out from the crowd. K-pop fans in Seoul should definitely stop by SMTOWN at Coex and JUST KPOP at Lotte World Tower for memorabilia. If that’s not enough, there are even a few studios where they can record their own songs.

If you’re more of a dancer than a singer, then the South Korean capital has a nightlife scene that is difficult to top. As some of the hardest-working people in the world, Koreans love to let their hair down in the evening, leading to a thriving, vibrant nightlife scene in Seoul. Shops and restaurants stay open until late – some never closing – and the city’s diverse bars and clubs range from casual hangouts to super-exclusive celebrity hotspots.

Seoul food
While Korean cuisine continues to make major inroads in the West, back in Seoul, traditional dishes are evolving as centuries-old recipes adapt to global influences, creating an exciting modern food scene. At the centre of this progress is a growing number of innovators working to push Korea’s culinary offering far beyond what is expected. Many of them can be found in the city’s 26 Michelin-starred restaurants.

Seoul in numbers

605sq km

Size

26

Michelin star restaurants

440

Hotels carries

For more informal dining, South Korea’s capital has plenty of street food options that are worth trying. Gwangjang Market has been serving up gastronomic delights for more than 100 years, including its famous mayak gimbap, a rice roll wrapped with seaweed, containing carrot, spinach and pickled radish, eaten with a tangy mustard dipping sauce. And while the longevity of Gwangjang Market is impressive, Namdaemun Market easily has it beat, having fed visitors since the 1400s. A host of Korean specialities can be found here, including hotteok – a cross between a pancake and a doughnut, which can be served savoury or sweet – and tteokbokki, a street food favourite that consists of rice cakes served in a sweet, spicy gochujang sauce.

Another integral part of the country’s food scene is Korean-style fried chicken, which dates back to the Korean War, when locals were influenced by the many American-style dishes they saw soldiers enjoying in and around US army bases. Over time, the recipe was refined, adding the uniquely Korean spin of frying the chicken twice to make it extra crispy; the fried chicken craze has evolved from there. Chimaek, a portmanteau of chicken and maekju – the Korean word for beer – describes a long-popular way of enjoying the dish that has achieved even greater fame for its appearance in the popular Korean television drama My Love from the Star, in which characters are sometimes seen enjoying chimaek by the Han River.

Other unique culinary experiences can be found at one of several temple food establishments in the country, which eschew processed foods in favour of mountain herbs, wild roots and natural seasoning. Because the dishes must adhere to the tenets of Korean Buddhism, they are all strictly vegetarian, in line with the monastic belief that eating meat extinguishes the seeds of compassion. For visitors who want a spiritual experience that extends beyond food, Korea’s Templestay programme sees many Buddhist temples offering activities catered to foreign groups looking for unique team-building opportunities to take them away from the distractions of modern living. The Bongeunsa and Jingwansa temples are two of the city’s most popular establishments for this programme.

Getting around
In terms of cultural activities, Seoul has plenty to offer. Visitors can take a scenic pedicab tour through Bukchon, Seoul’s famous hanok (traditional Korean house) neighbourhood, with the Artee Riders Club, or try on traditional Korean dress (hanbok) at the Namsan Seoul Tower Hanbok Culture Experience Centre atop Seoul’s Nam Mountain.

For a change of pace, visitors can explore the extensive retail options that have led to Seoul being lauded as a shopaholic’s paradise. With everything from the latest electronics to fashion, cosmetics and luxury goods on offer, shoppers can search for souvenirs in the Myeong-dong district. At the Namdaemun and Dongdaemun Markets, traditional Korean items and everyday essentials sit side by side, punctuated with street food stalls. For great prices on quality local and international luxury brands, Lotte, Shinsegae, and Hyundai all provide conveniently located duty-free shops throughout the city and at Incheon International Airport.

Exploring the best restaurants, cultural activities and retail outlets may sound appealing, but Seoul is a big city – more than 605sq km – and getting around on foot isn’t always possible. Fortunately, public transport in Seoul is among the best in the world. Furthermore, international visitors will have no trouble getting to and from various parts of the city thanks to the super-accessible Incheon International Airport and its high-speed rail connection.

Within the city itself is a well-developed subway, bus and taxi network, all of which benefit from multilingual signage. There are nine major subway lines and others connecting peripheral areas. It costs just over $1 to take a one-way trip with all transfers included. Travellers can also purchase Tmoney transportation cards – unified transportation cards used for subway trains, buses and even taxis – at any convenience store. Small purchases can be made with the card at selected stores as well. The Discover Seoul Pass is another option, functioning as a Tmoney card while also offering discounts for many attractions in the city.

Where to eat

Namdaemun Market
21 Namdaemunsijang 4-gil
+82 2 753 2805
www.namdaemunmarket.co.kr

Not content with being Seoul’s oldest market, Namdaemun is also the city’s largest, with more than 10,000 stalls offering a wide range of goods, from clothes and flowers to jewellery and much more besides. Of course, most visitors come for the food, with plenty of Korean delicacies to choose from along the market’s food alley. Plates of mandu – dumplings that can be steamed or fried – are a popular choice, as is kalguksu, a seafood broth containing dried seaweed, tofu and hand-pulled noodles. Wash it all down with a shot of soju, South Korea’s national drink.

Jungsik
11 Seolleung-ro 158-gil
+82 2 517 4654
www.jungsik.kr

The two-Michelin-starred restaurant Jungsik is the brainchild of chef Jungsik Yim, who began his culinary journey in the military before taking up prestigious roles in New York and Spain. He returned to Seoul and opened Jungsik in 2009, quickly becoming a leading figure in the ‘New Korean’ food movement. Dishes at the restaurant are usually ordered as part of a five or eight-course tasting menu, although a four-course option is available at lunch. Expect high-end gastronomic fare that combines the very best of Korean and western flavours, such as the truffle egg served with white kimchi, pan-fried mushrooms and parmesan foam.

Balwoo Gongyang
56 Ujeongguk-ro
+82 2 733 2081
www.balwoo.or.kr

As they take their seats, observant customers of Balwoo Gongyang may notice a ‘pre-meal chant’ written on the wall. It talks of getting rid of greed and achieving enlightenment – a fitting ethos for an establishment that deals in temple food, a cuisine closely connected with Korean Buddhism. However, just because gluttony is frowned upon here doesn’t mean diners will leave feeling unsatisfied. Dishes like deep-fried mushrooms coated with gochujang sauce and grilled tofu with prickly ash pepper pickles may look simple, but the flavours are surprisingly complex. There are also multiple vegan tasting menus available, each designed to show how people can live in harmony with nature.

Where to meet

Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre

513 Yeongdong-daero
+82 2 6000 0114
www.coex.com

Established in 1979, Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre has long been recognised as a torchbearer for Seoul’s MICE market. Comprising a total floor area of 460,000sq m spread across four exhibition halls, 55 meeting rooms and a separate convention hall, Coex has state-of-the-art facilities to cater to all visitors’ needs. In addition to supplying every modern amenity that corporate travellers require – including restaurants, retail outlets and entertainment options – the centre is situated very close to Bongeunsa Temple, giving visitors the perfect opportunity to connect with Seoul’s ancient traditions.

63 Convention Centre
50 63-ro
+82 2 789 5704
www.63convention.co.kr

Inside the 63 Building, towering over the island of Yeouido and the nearby Han River, is the 63 Convention Centre, an ideal venue for international conferences and other large events. The Grand Ballroom, located on the second floor, is particularly impressive, boasting the latest in presentation facilities and a large staging area that allows it to accommodate up to 2,000 guests. However, there is also the potential for more intimate gatherings: the Spruce room provides a cosy space for press conferences and seminars, while the Sage and Basil rooms offer private dining areas for more intimate or personal meetings.

Where to stay

Lotte Signiel Hotel
Lotte World Tower, 300 Olympic-ro
+82 2 3213 1000
www.lottehotel.com/seoul-signiel

Situated between the 76th and 101st floors of Lotte World Tower – the sixth-tallest building in the world – the Signiel Hotel certainly offers picturesque views of Seoul. If guests can steal themselves away from their room window, though, they’ll discover there is plenty more to this establishment. Boasting two Michelin star restaurants in the form of Stay and Bicena, in addition to a number of other food and drink options, there’s plenty of delicious fare to enjoy, whatever your favourite cuisine. An indoor pool, gym and sauna ensure that the Lotte Signiel Hotel has plenty to offer visitors who enjoy living the high life.

Conrad Seoul
10 Gukjegeumyung-ro
+82 2 6137 7000
www.conradseoul.co.kr

With its own wellness centre offering a heated indoor pool, sauna, steam room and fitness classes, the Conrad Seoul certainly has all the facilities you could need to unwind after a busy day, whether you’ve been conducting meetings or seeing the sights. Other highlights include the hotel’s eight dining and lounge venues, including: Zest, which offers both Korean favourites and western specialities; Atrio, a sophisticated Italian restaurant; 37 Grill & Bar, with its panoramic views; and 10G, a fast-food urban pantry. The hotel’s location in the heart of the Yeouido Business District also makes it ideal for corporate travellers.

Take it easy
Considering Seoul is such a huge metropolis, there is a surprising amount for nature lovers to enjoy. There are a number of mountains in Seoul including the landmark Namsan (san in Korean meaning ‘mountain’), and locals can often be found hiking through the nearby Bukhansan National Park as well as the city’s urban forests, such as Seoul Forest and Namsan Park.

Seoul has been strongly committed to boosting its green spaces, leading to initiatives such as the Cheonggyecheon Stream restoration project. The project has revitalised the stream and the surrounding area, creating more space for the natural environment and public recreation, as well as increasing real estate values in the area. Similarly, the Han River runs across the city and boasts a number of public riverside spaces. The river is dotted with islands that have been given over to bird sanctuaries or regenerated into public parkland, as is the case with Seonyudo.

Cheonggyecheon Stream

Seoulites are finding more ways to enjoy their green spaces, with popular pastimes including renting tents or mats by the Han River, ordering food and hanging out by the water’s edge. Seoul’s super-cheap Ttareungyi public bike rental initiative (a day pass costs roughly $5, with scaling discounts for longer-term subscriptions) has boosted the popularity of cycling, not only for getting around, but for leisure too. Locals also love to visit the city’s many cinemas, which regularly screen Hollywood blockbusters alongside Korean films, making them accessible to international travellers as well.

Away from the tranquillity of the city’s green spaces, further opportunities for relaxation can be found at Seoul’s bathhouses. In Korea, bathhouses are more than just places to wind down by getting steamed up – they’re day-trip destinations for the whole family. Many jjimjilbang (Korean spa) facilities offer everything from restaurants and hair salons to swimming pools and karaoke rooms, on top of spas and saunas. They also provide clothing to be worn inside the jjimjilbang and a locker for your belongings.

The relaxation continues with the city’s premier accommodation options. Seoul’s offerings range from five-star hotels housed in towering, modern structures to the authentic rooms of a hanok. The city has more than 440 hotels and over 58,000 rooms in total, with choices ranging from well-known international brands – for example, Marriott, AccorHotels, Hilton and Four Seasons – to domestic chains offering the same quality. Whether visitors are looking for luxurious rooms with fantastic views or a more authentic experience that embodies traditional culture, they all exist in this city.

Korea options
Seoul has regularly demonstrated its ability to hold large, high-profile international events professionally and safely for all attendees. Major events include the Seoul International Dental Exhibition and Scientific Congress, which draws in 30,000 participants annually, and the 2015 International Council of Nurses Conference, which welcomed 7,000 attendees.

Seoul’s MICE sector in numbers

30,000

Annual attendance at Seoul International Dental Exhibition and Scientific Congress

312

members of the Seoul MICE Alliance

KRW 200m

Financial support Seoul Convention Bureau offers corporate groups carries

In partnership with the Seoul Convention Bureau, the Seoul MICE Alliance (SMA) was created to improve Seoul’s attractiveness as a global business events destination. More than 300 members make up the SMA, which is divided into 10 categories: convention centres, hotels, professional conference organisers, travel agencies, transportation businesses, MICE services, entertainment outlets, retailers, exhibition associations and unique venues. Seoul Convention Bureau introduces the SMA to potential participants and provides the support needed to boost the meetings industry within the city.

This support is being reinforced through PLUS Seoul, an initiative that brings a number of new incentives to conference organisers. As part of the rebranded programme, the Seoul Convention Bureau has agreed to double the maximum cash support it offers corporate groups to KRW 200m ($171,000) and to help cover development costs for any apps or virtual reality experiences needed for congresses with more than 1,000 attendees. Moreover, there are now additional opportunities for brand exposure, including the offer of a welcome message at Incheon International Airport and other venue-dependent benefits.

Another way Seoul can compete with other MICE locations is through its unique venues, including the Floating Island Convention Centre. It can accommodate up to 500 people, who can look out onto the surrounding Han River. Likewise, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, boasting futuristic architecture designed by the late Zaha Hadid, is open 24 hours a day and has three event spaces with various facilities including museums, galleries, wheelchair rental, lockers, a premium cafe and shopping opportunities.

The Eland Han River Cruise offers another unique experience: guests can enjoy delicious food on board and gorgeous nighttime views across the river. Another unusual, but land-based, event space is Oil Tank Culture Park, a cultural site that was previously used for oil storage. The five remaining reservoir tanks have been reborn as spaces for performances, art exhibitions and more. The park is open year-round and admission is free, making it a great location to stroll and talk through ideas.

Inspiration is never hard to come by in this dynamic city. Whether visitors are enjoying some karaoke, taking in a few exhibits at the Seoul Museum of Art or scoffing down copious amounts of fried chicken, they are bound to find something to excite the senses. Seoul may be full of contradictions but, in the way that all the best cities do, it combines them to form a spectacular whole.

Seoul city diary

Seoul Fringe Festival
Seoul World Cup Stadium
August 15-24

Starting out in 1998 as a small gathering of young independent artists who wanted to defy the conventions of art at the time, Seoul Fringe Festival has grown to become South Korea’s premier celebration of alternative art. This year, more than 100 performers will treat spectators to dance, music, mime, drama and plenty more art forms.

ICICIC
Soongsil University
August 26-29

The 14th annual International Conference on Innovative Computing, Information and Control is coming to Seoul in late August and is set to deliver another diverse programme. Topics discussed in previous years have included lean manufacturing, port logistics and music therapy for children with autism.

Electric Daisy Carnival Korea
Seoulland
August 31 – September 1

Held at Seoulland, an amusement park situated about an hour from downtown Seoul, the Electric Daisy Carnival Korea is an electronic dance music festival that also contains interactive art installations and plenty of rides. Big names on the line-up this year include Deadmau5, Alesso and DJ Snake.

E-Learning Expo Korea
Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre
September 5-7

The world is changing fast, with digital technology being developed and deployed at such a rapid rate that educational and skills gaps are beginning to appear. Seoul’s e-Learning Expo aims to show visitors how these gaps can be plugged by using the latest innovations in edutech.

World Knowledge Forum
The Shilla Seoul
September 25-27

Known as Asia’s answer to Davos, the World Knowledge Forum has been held in Seoul since its inception in 2000. Every year, more than 200 of the world’s political and business leaders descend on the South Korean capital to discuss issues relating to inequality, leadership and technology. To date, 43,260 participants and 4,028 speakers have attended the forum.

Hanseong Baekje Cultural Festival
Peace Square, Seoul Olympic Park
September 27-29

One of the most important competitions on the clay-court circuit, the Italian Open tennis tournament, which is played in the lead-up to the French Open, has previously been won by the likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. It may not be a Grand Slam, but expect to see some top quality tennis over the course of the two-week tournament.

The International Conference on Innovation in Global Business, Social Sciences and Economics
Nine Tree Premier Hotel
October 5-6

The International Conference on Innovation in Global Business, Social Sciences and Economics comes to Seoul for two days this October in order to share research relating to sociology, the arts, business management and economics. A complimentary city tour will also be offered to all participants.

Korea Electronics Show
Coex Convention and Exhibition Centre
October 8-11

With 1,500 booths on display representing 500 companies from across the globe, it is little wonder that the Korea Electronics Show manages to attract 70,000 visitors each year, with 4,000 coming from abroad. The latest advances in home electronics, virtual reality and mobile communications are sure to wow attendees this year too.

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