Sold on Seoul

30 Sep 2015 by Clement Huang

Seoul has stolen the limelight as an international conference and events destination in recent years. While in 2008, it was rated 17th as a global events centre by the Union of International Associations, by 2010 it had sprung to 5th place, where it has remained ever since. 

This is undoubtedly related to a number of projects that have helped to transform the city into a magnet for meeting planners. The obvious name to drop is Coex, the city’s unofficial main space, located in the fashionable Gangnam district – and forming part of the much-lauded MICE cluster. The massive arena holds four exhibition halls, a convention hall, 54 meeting rooms, and sits astride Asia’s largest underground shopping mall. Major conferences have included the G20 Summit in 2010 and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. 

Last year, the city got a massive boost with the unveiling of fabulous sci-fi creation Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) from Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. In addition to huge curved, white exhibition spaces that have already been snapped up by the likes of Youtube, the centre has plenty to offer, including the Design Market, the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park and more. It is linked to three metro stations, with limited underground parking, to encourage a constant flow of people. The whole space screams cutting edge and is a fitting tribute to a city rated a world leader in technology with the fastest wifi speeds available. 

Aside from the giant players, there are also plenty of quirky intimate venues that ought not to be overlooked. Over 40 places have now been designated “unique venues” and showcase the diversity of options for delegates and business travellers. 

Life with art

Located in the fashionable Gangnam district, Yido Artce is a five-storey  “lifestyle, living and art” enterprise. The hipster space offers a cultural introduction to a range of handcrafts including pottery, ceramics, cooking and flower arranging. Independent artists’ creations adorn a homeware store in the basement, while other pieces are displayed in the gallery. Italian cuisine, made from Korean ingredients, is served in the bright airy restaurant on the first floor, where tables are dotted in between indoor plants and trees. Small groups could easily spend a morning getting lost in the delicate art of Korean ceramics on the third floor, before heading upstairs to work on their culinary skills in the afternoon. Rotation for larger groups is also possible. (yido.kr)

Another multi-purpose cultural venue is Sangsangmadang. Unmistakable thanks to a unique butterfly-inspired exterior, the art centre is located in Hongdae, a chilled-out part of town popular with students and creative types. The centre actively works to nurture local talent and comprises art galleries, photo studios, a cinema and live music venue. If you need inspiration for a brainstorm session, this place could hold the key. With seven storeys above ground and four below, the centre can host events such as recruitment drives, with corporate promotional videos and photo exhibitions shown on respective floors. (sangsangmadang.com)

If your inner artist is more of the K-pop variety, there’s a place for that too. In the Coex atrium stands the spangled new SM Town, a mecca for K-pop fans. Each of the six floors offers something different including merchandise, photo opportunities and a hologram theatre. The third floor, SMTown Studio, offers the complete pop star experience: from makeover and voice training to dance rehearsals and a studio to create your own music video masterpiece. Forty lucky employees from Asia’s Chanel branch were just one of the incentive groups who recently took advantage of this novel experience. (smtownland.com)

Setting the scene

It’s difficult to put a finger on what makes an event a success, but choosing a venue that oozes charm is a great start. Whether you’re looking for a traditional Korean setting or a chic city locale, Seoul has it covered.

A true city oasis, multipurpose venue Luka 511 is tucked off the main street in the upmarket Cheongdamdong shopping district, counting Rolls-Royce and Prada among its neighbours. Comprising an indoor restaurant offering seriously good French and Italian cuisine, an immaculately manicured garden with outdoor dining, separate building with a ballroom, plus a spa (currently under renovation), the venue offers numerous possibilities. For locals, it is a popular place to both get married and pop the question – so woe betide the man who brings his beloved to such a venue without a ring. It has also been the setting for a number of Korean television dramas such as Missing You. The venue can accommodate up to 500, with smaller settings available.

Eat and greet

For a traditional option, Phil Kyung Jae on the southern tip of the city is a popular choice. With almost six centuries of history, the former royal residence serves authentic court cuisine, including the famous Shinsollo royal hot pot and a mind-boggling variety of kimchi. The restaurant seats about 150 in a series of 13 private rooms (you will be expected to remove your shoes). The traditional architecture is stunning, and includes an outdoor courtyard where events can also be hosted under twinkling lights. (philkyungjae.co.kr; Korean only)

Kimchi may be Seoul’s most famous bite, but Korean cuisine has a lot more to offer. For another authentic delicacy, head to renowned restaurant Tosokchon to sample its signature dish of samgyetang – ginseng chicken soup, a favourite with the former president Roh Moo-hyun. The dish comprises a whole chicken stuffed with rice, jujube, ginger, gingko nuts, garlic and other herbs in a warm, healthy ginseng broth and is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. In Korea, ginseng is credited with just about every medicinal property from halting the ageing process to relieving aches and pains. The meal is served with haemul pajeon, a seafood and green onion pancake, along with spicy home made kimchi and a potent ginseng wine said to improve stamina. While locals will be directed to rooms with tatami-style floor seating, the “international” room offers tables and chairs. The restaurant is housed in a traditional-style Korean building and is within walking distance of a number of local markets, including foodie paradise Tongin Market and a boutique shopping district. (tosokchon.com)

Unusual options

You might assume that you’re in for another traditional Korean feast at Dugahun, a 200-year old specimen of Joseon dynasty architecture within walking distance of Gyeongbokgung palace. The structure belonged to the last crown prince’s family, and is a protected cultural asset. It is also an Italian fine dining restaurant. A sophisticated renovation has merged the historic roof detailing with sleek, modern interiors so guests can enjoy fine dining in tranquil surroundings. The main restaurant has a series of private rooms that can accommodate a maximum of 12, or 80 in total. Being located near “The Blue House” (South Korea’s executive office and official residence of the president) and several foreign embassies makes it popular for events with state officials. Opposite is an art gallery that can also be hired, but it’s brightly lit and soulless in comparison, so make sure you request the main restaurant. (dugahun.com)

For something a bit different, consider the Seoul Marina Club & Yacht, which is located on the banks of the Han River in Yeouido-dong. Several types of yacht are available for hire, complete with captain, including the power yacht or business boat for groups of up to 28. 

A popular route is to sail down to the Banpo Bridge in time for the world’s longest bridge fountain show, which is particularly spectacular at night as 200 lights illuminate rainbow-coloured jets of water as they dance in sync with the music. 

Onboard catering is available for brand launches, corporate business parties or even seminars and workshops. After a day on the water, delegates can relax in the striking four-storey marina clubhouse, which houses Italian Café Breeze and three convention halls. (seoul-marina.com)

Hotel picks

Since Accor took the reins in 2012, the Grand Ambassador – a Pullman hotel, has been steadily undergoing a revamp to its guestrooms and meeting facilities. The 413 rooms are aesthetically pleasing with modern décor and all come with complimentary high-speed wifi. There are 12 meeting and conference rooms, featuring a mix of elegant, traditional décor and modern facilities. Location-wise, the hotel is ideally suited to both business and leisure travellers, 

being in easy reach of major shopping, entertainment and business areas such as City Hall, Gwanghwamun, Dongdaemun, Myeongdong and Namsan. (pullmanhotels.com)

Attached to its own convention centre and just 40 minutes from Incheon International Airport – one of the fastest commutes from the city – the Grand Hilton Seoul is popular with business travellers. The hotel boasts a grand ballroom, 12 meeting venues and 396 guestrooms. While the guestrooms received a stylish makeover two years ago, with modern colour schemes and furnishing, the hotel meeting rooms have been left in a time warp at odds with the more modern creations in town, although the convention centre has more up-to-date facilities. Highlights include a dazzling lobby, seven restaurants and a very pleasant outdoor event space that looks on to a number of hiking trails into the nearby Mt. Baekryun. (hilton.com)

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