Even though we were in a luxury people carrier with darkened windows designed to give the occupants a sense of privacy, the glances, smiles and waves made us feel all the more conspicuous as the vehicle edged around the royal palace end of Gwanghwamun Plaza.
As the guide cheerily explained, our luxury vehicle was typical of the type used by K-pop stars, particularly those arriving at the plaza for an open-air concert that evening.
We took our seats behind rows of diplomats, C-suite executives and their families to enjoy an evening of entertainment by some of the K-wave’s most celebrated talent in a concert that also featured a satellite link to the lighting of the Olympic flame 126km away in Pyeongchang, the base for the 2018 Winter Games.
The song-and-dance routines performed may not suit every business traveller’s taste, but K-pop – or hallyu as Koreans call it – has become a solidifying cultural force for the country. After long years of postwar struggle, South Korea has transformed into an industrial and technological success story; the K-wave has come to symbolise a modern, youthful Korea with artistes happy to celebrate the “Miracle along the Han River”.
Whether the experience you seek is hallyu-inspired or not, the Seoul Tourism Organisation has an impressive array of services and partners that business event visitors can tap into. Our “covert” mini-limo bus, for example, came from one of the companies in the Seoul MICE Alliance, an increasing band of suppliers (presently standing at 260 members) ranging from luxury hotels and restaurants to theatre groups and department stores. Services provided can be tailored to a small team of executives or delegations numbering in the hundreds.
Seoul is no stranger to the legions of business travellers who fly to Incheon, usually to check on the shipbuilding industry or what has just come off the drawing board at Samsung, LG or the bevy of digital companies that are making South Korea so competitive on the global stage.
But in these days of increasing “bleisure”, as we are encouraged to fine-tune that work-life balance, Seoul Tourism Organisation is offering more in this direction.
“One More Trip” is one such scheme that offers travellers a chance to experience Korean culture and pastimes. So it was back into the limo bus for a trip to the suburbs of west Seoul and the K-Cooking Class, based in the home of Chris Joo, whose cosy apartment is spacious enough for a show kitchen with worktops for up to six wannabe chefs.
As we learned, there is a well-ordered presentation of dishes in Korean cuisine, a format that stems from the days of the royal court. Careful consideration is also given to balance, not only the flavours, but the colour, textures, and even the side dishes. But the real benefits of adding such a programme to a business trip was evident when we sat around Joo’s dining-room table: a rousing sense of team spirit and satisfaction in creating a hearty lunch, however small the part you may have played in terms of culinary prowess.
Other holistic experiences on offer include the Solgaheon Healing Café, which offers footbaths and medicinal herbal tea; a tour of the Samhae Korean brewery, and – if you haven’t had your fill of hallyu – K-pop recording sessions and make-up classes.
Also featured on the One More Trip online platform are walking tours such as taking a stroll along one of Seoul’s latest, and typically innovative, parks. Seoullo 7017 is a former flyover road from Seoul Station that was built in the 1970s to ease traffic congestion. Fast forward to mid-2017, and the pedestrian haven designed by a Dutch consultancy has been repurposed with pop-up outlets operated by youthfully creative start-ups.
Another new opening comes in the form of Korea’s tallest building, the 123-floor Lotte World Tower. From the six-storey Seoul Sky observation section, which starts on the 117th level, you can take in majestic 360-degree views of Seoul. On level 123 is a high-end lounge, while cafés, observation decks and Sky Deck with an open-air platform can be found on the floors below. The tower also houses the Signiel luxury hotel on floors 76 to 101, featuring a grand ballroom with a capacity for 300, plus Studio I-IV with four venues. More than halfway down from the hotel is Sky31 with swish office space and a small auditorium.
Another addition to Seoul’s visitor options is the Grévin Museum, France’s famous wax museum dating back 135 years. Its first Asia outlet opened in the Jung-gu area of Seoul less than three years ago, and now offers a selfie-taking paradise. One of the interactive sections of the museum is the Discovery Atelier where you can learn about Grevin’s production methods by using 3D scanning to create your own wax figures. Grévin Seoul’s Hall of Fame can also be used for a nightclub-themed event where groups can mingle with “celebrities” ranging from Psy, G-Dragon and other K-pop stars to Mick Jagger, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.
Grévin may have given Korea its first wax museum, but the nation’s cultural and historic treasures can be found at the National Museum of Korea, in Yongsan-gu, near the Shilla, Grand Hyatt and the new Seoul Dragon City “hotelplex”. Korea’s longest-serving museum moved to a new building in 2005, on a site formerly used by the US Army. It has evolved into a world-class complex that hosted a G20 dinner and offers space for indoor and outdoor events, and conferences.
A modernistic Seoul landmark is Some Sevit, along the banks of the River Han. The cluster of three “floating islands” are actually registered ships, but at night they come into full glory as the colourfully aglow FIC (Floating Island Convention) that has hosted events for the likes of Hewlett Packard to Maserati, thanks to a car elevator and wall-to-ceiling views of the Han River. The F&B options continue with a classic French-dining room, a laid-back Western restaurant with pizza a speciality, and private dining rooms to suit most preferences.
Walking on the Cloud
Drinks at Some Sevit can be followed by a river-taxi trip that takes in landmarks such as the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain, before a stop near Hanwha Group’s gold-tinted 63 Building in Yeouido. On the 59th level is the Walking on the Cloud venue designed to make the most of the views of Seoul at night with a private dining room suitable for up to 20 people.
Private venues can also be found at 63’s Whiskey & Wine Bar, with its Touch the Sky – on the 58th level – offering five dining or meeting spaces.
Beware, however… the venue has a “lights-out” policy around 8pm when suitors get the chance to propose across a candlelit table with the glow of Seoul city out the window. Resist the urge to visit the bathroom at this point; you may risk tripping over a kneeling leg and cause Cupid’s arrow to fly off target.
K-Wave Penthouse at SMT
SM Entertainment is one of the foremost entertainment agencies that brought the world the K-pop phenomenon. On its rosters is a swathe of girl and boy bands that top the charts at home and abroad, while SM also has more eager young hopefuls waiting in the wings.
One venue where the occasional starlet ventures is SMT Seoul, located in the upmarket dining quarter of Cheongdam. The venue opened in January 2016 and is a concept by Soo Man Lee, the founder of the SM Entertainment Group, who has the likes of EXO and Girls Generation under his wing. A lounge bar called Playground is on the ground level and there is elevator access to venues ranging from an outdoor terrace with two indoor dining areas, to the Penthouse spaces where K-popsters kick back with their own Korean hotpot rooms, or dine at tables serving French and fusion cuisine from SMT’s in-house chef.
Seoul Dragon City
Industry is a hallmark of modern Korea, and Seoul’s districts are alive with specialist workshops and stores supplying lighting, electronics and engineering services. Seobu T&D Corporation – the developer behind Seoul’s latest major hotel project – has its roots in such a commercial area, Yongsan, also home to plush neighbourhoods and upscale hotels. It is also where Seoul Dragon City opened in autumn 2017 as Korea’s largest hotel, with a combined 1,700 guestrooms spread across four brands.
The “hotelplex” is also a major project for Accor, which has its Novotel Hotel, Novotel Suites, Grand Mercure and Ibis Styles in Dragon City.
For special events, the cluster boasts Sky Kingdom, with four levels of themed venues housed in a bridgeway that links two of the towers, and includes the Sky Beach, which features decking, BBQ facilities and a DJ booth.
The hotelplex is 3km from Seoul Station, from where high-speed trains can reach Pyeongchang in 90 minutes. Even closer, however, are Yongsan and Sinyongsan stations, which connect to the rest of the city, and the iPark Mall – with Shilla Duty Free and Lotte Cinema – accessible by covered walkway.
Headquarters of Korea’s corporate titans are grouped around avenues either side of Yeouido Park and within sight of the National Assembly building where the republic’s lawmakers preside.
Amid the chaebols and multinationals stands the 434-guestroom Conrad Seoul with three floors of event space including the grand ballroom, which at 941 sqm can accommodate up to 1,200 people. With 47 corner suites, including a presidential suite facing the LG headquarters, the international corporate community tends to feel at home here with Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, AIG, IBM and more in the neighbourhood. Alongside corporate comforts, the Conrad Seoul encourages travellers to strike out of that comfort zone with a choice of itineraries that last one, two or up to five hours and are “off the beaten track for our guests”.
Four Seasons Seoul
Gwanghwamun is where old- and new-town Seoul meet, a hub that takes in the palace, the “K-wave cool” alleys and streets, and – for those seeking a plush retreat – Four Seasons Seoul.
Hidden in the basement, a speakeasy-style bar offers an intriguing post-meeting or incentive retreat for small groups. The lounge bar is kitted out in sympathetic detail to conjure the style of a US Prohibition-era hideaway, but more Great Gatsby than Al Capone. Overall, however, the venue is a homage to Charles H Baker Jr (1895-1897), who wrote the Gentleman’s Companion series of books, now undergoing a renaissance as mixologists collect his classic cocktail recipes.
JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square
Dongdaemun is Seoul’s design, garment and fashion quarter all rolled into one, with the gate that gives the area its name standing proud outside the JW Marriott. This contrasts with the uber-modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a venue for fashion shows and design-related events. When US President Donald Trump was in town the hotel provided the base for some of his entourage. If they weren’t too busy they could avail themselves of the hotel’s indoor pool, the setting for a number of Korean TV drama scenes, which are almost as soap operatic as the White House itself!
By Martin Donovan