Kongres Telescope was recently invited to participate in a Seoul FAM trip coinciding with the Seoul International Business Advisory Council (SIBAC) sitting. What we saw and what we learned clearly sets the South Korean capital in a league of its own.

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Of all the Asian mega-cities, none has a setting as naturally dramatic as South Korean capital Seoul. The broad, mythical Han river separates the historic north side from the hip south side and its celebrated ‘Gangnam’ district, both sides bounded by mountains whose peaks peer down on the vast city below.

From these natural peaks around Seoul it is also possible to appreciate the view of a number of man-made peaks within the city, not only those of the new skyscrapers peppering the skyline, but also some of the peaks reached in the MICE industry that have put Seoul in the international spotlight.

Since 2011, three years after setting up the Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB), the city has been placed fifth in the UIA rankings for hosting international conferences, up from its previous position of eleventh. This jump came years ahead of SCB’s goal of achieving a top five spot, but witnessing the industry and desire of the SCB staff – spearheaded by the indefatigable vice president Maureen O’Crowley, who has built a very internationally-savvy team around her – and alloying this to the city’s facilities makes it very understandable how they were able to make this happen.

First of all is the city’s flagship COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre. Although it has chalked up a few years and is under increasing competition from new centres springing up seemingly daily around Asia, it still stands for everything good in intelligent and integrated convention centre design. With almost 50,000m2 consisting of four flexible exhibition halls, 54 meeting rooms, two capacious conference rooms, as well as an auditorium and ballroom facilities, the centre can cover the full range of meeting requirements, which goes a long way to explain its remarkable 73% occupancy rate. COEX’s meeting facilities are part of a broader complex including a wealth of shopping (Asia’s largest underground mall, no less, complete with Aquarium) and entertainment options, as well as two five-star InterContinental hotels and a premier residential hotel. Add this to an urban air terminal and direct connections to the airport as well as the city’s subway lying beneath the centre and in COEX Seoul has an effective self-contained meeting city. Set for renovation beginning early in 2014, the complex will only get better.

Not resting on the success of COEX, the city continues to add new and very high-spec facilities to its meeting portfolio. Foremost amongst these and set to open to the public in Spring 2014 is the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza. A futuristic, sprawling temple to world-class design, the international uniqueness of this building will undoubtedly be a powerful magnet for meeting organisers from across the world wanting access to premier facilities provided in its convention halls, exhibition halls and more than 20 meeting rooms within a truly iconic building. Its location is also increasingly becoming identified as Seoul’s design ‘hub’ with all of the potential that that offers, a number of new hotels already scheduled to open around the perimeter of the new plaza.

Also opening in Spring 2014 and exploiting the natural treasures of the city will be another unique venue, the ‘Floating Island’ complex. Consisting of three floating islands – Vista, Viva and Terra – connected by floating bridges, it will be suitable for more intimate events. Being located next to the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain Bridge, the longest bridge fountain in the world, promises the end of day entertainment to be something extra-special for delegates.

Complementing these established and emerging meeting facilities is a range of established and emerging infrastructure. The Shilla Hotel, a Seoul landmark and classic of the city’s hotel scene, has just undergone a full refurbishment. Its rooms are sumptuous and continue to ooze quality, as does just about everything in the hotel, including its meeting and leisure facilities, not to mention the immaculately landscaped gardens it sits within, all of which consolidates its status amongst the leading hotels of the world.

Whilst the Shilla is justifiably recognised as a standard-bearer for new hotels regularly popping up on the city scene, these new hotels are rising to the challenge with their own take on modern design and the demands of the modern delegate. One such case is with the Walkerhill Convention Centre shared between the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill and the W Seoul Walkerhill, on the eastern side of the city. Not only does the flexible convention space offer a plethora of possibilities for meeting organisers, but for an extra-special event there is Aston House, a palatial villa within the hotel complex commanding jaw-dropping views over Seoul and the Han river. After a hard day’s work, the W Hotel then offers quite possibly the most contemporary rooms in the city and a cuisine that is earning a reputation far and wide.

Scattered around the city there is an endless supply of leisure activities to be had, as befits such a modern metropolis. Should mixing business with pleasure be the priority, options such as a meeting room at the Korea Furniture Museum – a real ‘hidden gem’ boutique museum visited by the great and the good – at the Korea House, a venue showcasing traditional Korean culture, or a function in one of the three exhibition spaces at the stunning Gana Art Centre can easily be organised and should be high on any organiser’s wish list.  For tech lovers, a visit to the Samsung museum, loaded with their latest innovations, is a must. In addition to these there are a wealth of leisure options, many of which have signed up the Seoul MICE Alliance, a public-private partnership established to enhance the city’s global business events competitiveness and which is constantly being expanded through the efforts of the SCB.

Yet for all of these peaks that have already been climbed, with our European knowledge of the Alps and the Pyrenees we understand that reaching the summit of one peak can often disclose an even higher peak over its ridge. And so it is with Seoul: a private Q&A session in advance of the Seoul International Business Advisory Council (SIBAC) 2013 with Park Won Soon, the Mayor of Seoul (see following article), granted to Kongres Telescope along with six other leading international MICE publications, unveiled that the city has developed a 2014-2018 Masterplan for Tourism and MICE to take the industry to the next and ultimate peak – to aim to be the world’s number one international MICE destination.

Following a report commissioned by the city and undertaken by McKinsey, the MICE industry was identified as a future driver for growth, just as it will be across the globe. Also identified was that whilst Seoul is ranked 5th in the world, its infrastructure provision comes in at number 20. Align this with the expected demand in future years and something needed to be done – which it has, through the Masterplan’s commitment to triple MICE infrastructure by 2020, from a current 64,000m2 to almost 200,000m2.

Given the unprecedented scale of growth, the expansion has been planned in three phases: the first focussing on the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and a proposed convention centre at Seoul Station, leading to a total uplift of approx. 40,000m2 by 2018. The second phase, running to 2020, will see the Seoul Metropolitan Government convert and merge the area surrounding the COEX facility (the adjoining 1988 Olympics main stadium site and some riverside space) into a gigantic, fully equipped MICE complex, adding more than 80,000m2 of additional MICE space. The final phase, from 2020 and beyond, will focus on MICE facilities supporting industrial research and development to the south-west of the city, which will be invaluable in supporting South Korea’s increasing position as the world’s leading IT and telecommunications state.

Realising these phases of growth is now a top priority of the Seoul Metropolitan Government – in other words, it is going to happen. To make it happen it will be bolstered by initiatives to expand access to venues, to nurture a business environment conducive to business engagement in MICE, and to develop a comprehensive support system for the MICE industry. If the world wants a template of how government can commit to developing a key growth sector, in 2013 Seoul has set down a serious marker with its 2014-2018 Masterplan. Industry influencers, take note!

Bukhan, Dobong, Namsan – these are the names of just some of the peaks surrounding Seoul. They’re going to need some more names pretty soon – a lot more peaks are set to appear in the city, and 2020 promises to be the year to reshape the global MICE topography.

 

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