Dongdaemun Design Plaza
Evolving from an agrarian society into an world economic superpower in a mere three generations, South Korea fully embraces cutting edge innovation while remaining deeply connected to the past. You experience it the moment you arrive when you rent a smart phone upon landing at Incheon International Airport. Cell reception and WiFi are lightning fast, even while riding the bullet trains that crisscross this country past ancient Buddhist temples and small family farms.
“Koreans are forward-looking in that they are very competitive and are known to work extra hard to achieve even higher results,” says Alex Paik, spokesperson for the Seoul Convention Bureau. “This can be seen in the country’s phenomenal economic growth since the Korean War. At the same time, Korea has a very long and rich history, and we are very happy to show it off.”
For many planners, South Korea begins and ends with Seoul, a major Asian hub with a heady mix of crisp meeting space and a plethora of unique cultural activities. A 70-minute flight south, the island of Jeju is making waves as Korea’s own “South Seas” incentive destination with spectacular beaches rimming the majestic 6,400-foot Halla Mountain.
“I was in Seoul for the first time last October and was awestruck by the sheer size of the city,” says Colleen McKenna Tucker, executive director of the International Insurance Society, who’s organizing a 500-pax conference next spring. “I was equally impressed by the quantity and quality of the meeting facilities. It’s a meeting planner’s dream with state-of-the-art facilities, a supply ratio that benefits the buyer, a culture of hospitality and a work ethic that exceeds any other country in my opinion.”
For all the urban bustle of this city of 10 million people, Seoul offers plenty of room to breathe. Take a water taxi down the wide Han River that snakes through the city past leafy parks resplendent in lights and fountains. A short distance from Han River, the enormous COEX Convention & Exhibition Center, COEX Mall and World Trade Center Seoul are connected with the COEX InterContinental Hotel and InterContinental Grand Seoul Parnas. The largest of four ballrooms is 19,500 sf, supported by 54 meeting rooms. Inside, sunlight streams in through 50-foot floor-to-ceiling glass walls while an eye-popping buffet of Asian and Western foods at Vizavi restaurant leaves us stunned. We try everything from amuse-bouche cups of couscous and salmon roe at the salad bar, to unlimited crab legs, barbecued ribs and lobster at the grill bar.
Recharge with a visit to Bongeunsa Temple. Founded in 794 and located across the street from COEX, the prominent Buddhist temple provides an oasis of calm for group attendees who can tour the pastoral grounds, learn the history and significance of temple paintings from a local guide, or simply settle their mind quietly in the main temple building.
Several miles north in the center of Seoul’s fashion district, the stunningly futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid opens early next year. The 919,000-sf convention and meeting venue undulates up from the ground like a wave, with acres of rooftop green space flowing down into a park space with Zen-like harmony. Traditional Korean gardens with old masonry contrast with the modern shapes.
On a narrow street in the busy Samcheongdong neighborhood, filled with cultural shops and cafes, the chic Hakgojae Gallery occupies a traditional hanok building with a theme of “Studying the Old. Creating the New.” Revolving exhibits make big news in Seoul’s art scene, ranging from 19th century calligraphy to Frank Stella’s Mid-Century mod abstract masterpieces. Also, The Artsonje Center links the Kyungbok Palace and Insadong area, the two main hubs for Seoul art. “Breathing intellectual vigor and the global perspective,” the center aims to deliver contemporary Korean culture to worldwide masses with edgy installations inside the gallery spaces and even the parking lot.
Seoul is dotted with numerous pedestrian-only street markets, such as Namdaemun and Myeongdong, located in the city’s center. Like an ongoing carnival, we walk past a dizzying, neon-lit mix of restaurants, food stalls, karaoke clubs, bars, spas, shops and boutiques, stopping here or there to browse or nosh.
Nearly all of our meals in Seoul encompass an elegant array of banchan (side dishes) covering so much tablecloth you can barely find room for a teacup. Try the steamed lotus root and savory japchae (sweet noodles) bursting with spicy, pungent flavors.
“Sample as much Korean cuisine as possible like our world-famous Korean barbeque straight from the source,” says Paik.
An excellent example of Korean cuisine can be found at Samcheonggak, a culture and arts complex of traditional Korean-style buildings on Seoul’s forested Mt. Bukaksan, just a short drive north of downtown. After a performance of traditional music and theater, dinner features savory ginkgo, shrimp and shiitake custard with dried sardines, raw fish kimchi, a delicate miso vegetable broth and tender beef ribs.
For a great downtown location near a host of city activities and attractions, The Westin Chosun Seoul is ideal. The spacious and modern entry and lobby area is a picture of classic elegance, and gives the sense I’m entering an art gallery. Rooms have a similar feel, with a contemporary design of muted grays and brown tones, some with in-room spas, and large by Asian standards. North facing rooms, and several meeting rooms, look out on historic Hwanggungu temple and its tranquil gardens, built in 1897 by the Korean emperor, which are now part of the hotel grounds. The 20-story hotel, with 462 rooms and 16,500 sf of meeting space, also features six restaurants and lounges, as well as an executive lounge open from breakfast through evening cocktails and offering stunning city views.
Also in the center of downtown, The Plaza promotes itself as “The Hotel of the New Era” with a design-forward mission highlighted by a living wall of native greenery around the porte-cochere. Once inside, the uniquely stylish lobby is bathed in warm gold colors aided by recessed decorative lighting that helps expand the sense of space.
Following a comprehensive November 2010 renovation, the 400 rooms feature a sleek, urban design with comfortable dark tones that provide a boutique ambience. For planners booking events in the 21,600 sf of meeting space, you will love the birds-eye view from the 22nd floor offering a spectacular panorama of the cityscape and surrounding mountains.
On the eastern edge of the city overlooking Han River from a wooded hillside, the classic Sheraton Grande Walkerhill is ideal for groups who prefer a sense of “getting away” from the urban core. However, it’s only a 10-minute transfer to COEX. A winding road drops us at the spectacular entrance with a large curvy Mid-Century modern overhang held up by what resembles two enormous metal chopsticks.
Inside, the lobby and common areas are truly grand with stately browns and high ceilings, while many of the 589 guest rooms feature solid wood panels and sleek modern furnishings. Besides the nearly 47,000 sf of meeting space, the secluded 180-acre grounds offer several private houses ideal for VIP guests and other exclusive events.
Attached to the Sheraton Grande, the W Seoul Walkerhill is fabulously hip. The lobby and mezzanine lounge are bathed in hues of violets, pinks, reds and blues from illuminated floor or wall panels and recessed lighting. The 252 guestrooms are dazzling in floor-to-ceiling white with uber-modern pod chairs and chaise lounges. Back downstairs, we step inside W’s posh WooBar which is just cranking up for the night as one of the city’s hottest nightspots for locals and visitors. The DJ pumps out cool lounge music from his spaceship-like booth while guests sip signature cocktails along the 60-foot bar facing interactive art displays and incredible city views.
South of downtown on an island carved out of the Han River, the Yeouido business district is home to the stunning 63 Convention Center high-rise. Various group space includes a ballroom for 2,000 pax and a fantastic observation platform. A recent interior redo by the innovative Perkins + Will architecture firm is astonishing with aluminum wall grids in the atrium that hold acrylic bud vases with atmospheric lighting from behind. And this November, the district will welcome the LEED-certified, 448-room Conrad Seoul.
Like a jewel floating in Korea’s southern seas, Jeju is tropical island with a pleasant year-round climate, relaxed pace and untamed nature. The striking International Convention Center Jeju is set along the shoreline with amazing views of the sea. Besides a main theater hall for groups up to 4,300, ICC Jeju features the elegant Delizia restaurant where we enjoy Italian and Korean cuisine while watching the sunset through 40-foot high windows.
“The island is quite beautiful and one gets a totally different impression of Korea if one compares it with Seoul,” says Barbara Hickernell, CAE, executive director of Engineering Conferences International, who recently held a conference for 285 international attendees on Jeju. “There is so much green and so much open land. For a research conference, it is almost ideal as it is relaxing to be interacting with colleagues while looking at the sea.”
Besides sailing and fishing cruises, and even submarine tours, Jeju offers a range of nature-friendly attractions for groups. We stroll the lush grounds of Spirited Gardens, a quiet and relaxing contrast to Seoul with only the sounds of water tippling into a koi pond. The garden features carefully tended bonsai trees and stone statues à la Easter Island, as well as an area designated exclusively for events.
After a short drive, we tour Jeju Folk Village Museum for a fascinating look at the Island’s not-so-distant past. The village features over 100 traditional houses and rustic buildings, with interiors recreated down to the last loom and dirt floor. We’re able to view inside each building, including a school for Confucianism.
Secluded in a forest of landscaping, Seaes Hotel & Resort features 30 rooms and seaside event space for over 2,000 within walking distance to ICC Jeju. The property has a laid-back island charm with bungalow-style meeting and living quarters and state-of-the-art sound systems. You meander down a leafy path to your room, attached to one other unit, and relax in a private garden mostly hidden by palms. The grounds include an elaborate koi pond and an outside dining deck overlooking the water.
A short stroll along the bluff, the 492-room Shilla Jeju was the first 5-star hotel to be built on the island, in 1990. Like a classic French Riviera resort, the elegant Mediterranean style hotel includes grand staircases and colonnades with pastel hues of coral and rose throughout. All rooms and suites feature French doors that open onto wide balconies and sea views. The property offers 33,000 sf of meeting space and sprawling lawns for outdoor events, including luxe poolside cabanas and even a glamping village complete with tent-side barbeques.
Straight out of a James Bond movie, the dramatic 223-room Hyatt Regency Jeju is perched on a wooded bluff with stunning water views. The rooms are crisp, clean and light with large floor-to-ceiling windows. The wide and sunny atrium has a very tropical feel with a pond, garden and café in the center. But most of the action is outside at the terrace restaurant, rolling lawn space (61,000 sf), poolside café and helipad. Total indoor meeting space is 7,000 sf.