The toughest decision delegates at November’s G-20 summit may have to make is what to do with five minutes of their free time. After all, Seoul’s largest convention venue — the 4-million-square-foot Coex complex — also happens to include the World Trade Center Seoul, the Seven Luck Casino and the largest underground shopping mall in Asia. Visitors can wander through a vast aquarium, sample the national dish of pickled vegetables at the Kimchi Museum or take in a movie at the 808-seat Coex Artium without ever leaving the mall.
In some ways, that’s true of all of Seoul, says Chi Nguyen-Rettig, who spent three months in South Korea’s capital on a consulting assignment.
“The entire city is a market. Everywhere you go, stuff is being sold,” Nguyen-Rettig says. “There are street vendors everywhere and shops in the train and subway stations. You can eat 24 hours a day. It’s very similar to New York — you never have to cross town, because everything you need is within a small radius of where you are.”
Free time in Seoul can be hard to come by. Koreans put in more time at work than anyone else in the world — an average of 2,357 hours a year, according to a 2008 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared to 1,797 hours in the United States. With time at a premium, it is handy to have everything within reach of one’s office, hotel room or convention hall, something that makes the city especially attractive to meeting planners.
“We’re within walking distance of Lotte World, which includes an amusement park, restaurants, shops and a stadium. And nearby is the Namhansanseong Fortress [a 17th-century command post],” says Roberta Spencer, executive director of the System Dynamics Society, which will hold its 2010 conference in Seoul in July.
With a population of 10 million people packed into 233 square miles (New York City, by comparison, has about 8 million people in 305 square miles) and a cityscape that changes quickly from preserved palaces and temples to ultramodern office towers, Seoul might seem like an intimidating place to get around. But the city is all about making connections — whether it’s whisking passengers from Incheon Airport (ICN) to downtown Seoul in 45 minutes aboard the AREX high-speed rail line, scheduled for completion by year’s end, or channeling them through 8 million trips each day on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, whose 10 routes are marked in both English and Korean. That’s true online as well: Already one of the most connected cities on the planet, Seoul could see its Web connection speeds jump from 100 megabits to one gigabit per second by 2012 if the Korea Communications Commission delivers on an ambitious new $24.6 billion broadband project.
Nor is Seoul’s form merely functional. The kings of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty were already incorporating urban planning techniques when they built the city’s “five grand palaces” in the 14th century, and Seoul’s continuing achievements in that field led the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design to choose the city as its World Design Capital for 2010.
Nowhere is the city’s commitment to aesthetics more apparent than at Cheonggyecheon, a 3.6-mile creek paved over by postwar planners of the 1950s. In 2003, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — then mayor of Seoul — launched a $384 million project to rip out the concrete, restore the river and transform an elevated highway into a 3.7-mile public park in the heart of the city. The restored river has been credited with cooling city temperatures, improving traffic flows and attracting about 90,000 visitors to the park each day since it re-opened in 2005.
About 230,000 of the 7.8 million people who visited South Korea last year came to attend one of 120 meetings or conventions in Seoul. The Korean government hopes to boost those numbers to 300,000 attendees at 150 meetings in 2010, arguing that convention-goers create twice as many jobs for the local economy as the average tourist, according to The Korea Times. In fact, worried that the city’s wealth of meeting and exhibition centers would be inadequate for the upcoming G-20 summit, the government is currently constructing three large-scale artificial islands in the Han River.
“Since the G-20 summit was the largest international event ever to be held in Korea, it required a large-scale convention center, accommodation and security,” says M.I.C.E. manager Sung K. Kim of the Korea Tourism Organization of New York. “The islands will have convention halls and will be connected to downtown Seoul.”
Another top draw for the city is medical tourism. Thanks to its reputation for high-quality, low-cost health care, Seoul hopes to attract 52,000 visiting patients in 2010.
“Korean medical technology has already reached the world’s top level, especially in surgeries,” says Miae Lew, marketing coordinator for the Korea Tourism Organization’s Los Angeles office. “In Korea, these advanced medical services are available at competitive prices . . . only a third, sometimes even a 10th, of those in the U.S. Furthermore, caring doctors and medical staff make Korean medical tourism even more special and comforting.”
The weakening South Korean won has made Seoul more affordable to foreign visitors. Many come to see Korea’s past: in Gyeongbokgung, the “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven,” rebuilt twice since its construction in 1394 by the Josean King Taejo; in Bukchon Village, where Korea’s traditional hanok houses have been preserved; or even in the concrete and barbed wire of the Demilitarized Zone that has divided North and South Korea since 1953. Other popular tourist attractions can double as meeting venues. The newly rebuilt National Museum of Korea, which opened in Yongsan in 2005, hosts conferences and academic events; and Fradia, a “floating cultural space” on the Hangang River, welcomes concerts and fashion shows.
Planners looking for a truly unique team-building adventure could consider a “temple stay” program in which guests spend from half a day to a few nights at a Buddhist temple under the direction of the temple monks. Visitors can also sign up for a class in taekwondo — the Korean martial art that has become an Olympic sport — at Gyeonghuigung Palace. Both Gyeonghuigung’s National Palace Museum and the Tteok (Rice Cake) Museum offer group courses in Korean cooking.
“Thanks to the popularity of Korean TV series and movies in other Asian countries, interest in Korean cuisines has reached an all-time high, from much-loved kimchi and bulgogi to tasty rice cakes,” Lew says. “Although there are countless different authentic Asian cuisines in Seoul, everyone visiting Korea should experience the unique taste of Korean food firsthand.”
It’s also part of the Seoul business culture, says Nguyen-Rettig, who adds that visitors can often look forward to a meal with their hosts after a day on the convention floor. “Everything is done over food,” Nguyen-Rettig says.
Other convention venues may claim to have it all, but it would be difficult to top the Coex complex, which draws about 200,000 visitors each day. In addition to 51 meeting rooms and four exhibition halls, the 4,706,208-square-foot Coex houses three 5-star hotels, the Hyundai Department Store, a 16-screen cinema and an aquarium whose Undersea Tunnel carries visitors beneath 40,000 marine creatures swimming in 2,500 tons of sea water. There’s also a 1,800-guest Grand Ballroom and the elegant Room 201, whose 17 translation booths and embroidered designs were created for the 2000 summit meeting of Asian and European countries. 159 Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, tel 82 02 6000 1125.
Korea’s largest, newest and most modern exhibition hall opened in 2005 with 580,982 square feet of meeting space and will add another 538,195 when it completes its expansion in September 2011. Located within easy reach of Incheon International Airport, Kintex offers a single pillarless floor for events like the Seoul Motor Show, which it hosted in 2005. Other venues include the 2,000-guest Grand Ballroom, an event hall and several VIP meeting rooms. Daehwa-dong Ilsan-seogu, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do, tel 82 31 810 8114.
Seoul Trade Exhibition Centre
Calling itself “a cradle from which businesses can launch into the global market,” the center will host LED Designcon Korea, the International Golf & Resort Fair and Seoul Fashion Week, among other events this year. SETEC’s 168,240 square feet of floor space includes two convention halls, a 330-seat international conference hall and a 33,691-square-foot exhibition area with room for 170 booths. 514 Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, 82 02 2222 3811.
Don’t confuse Lotte World with the Hotel. One is an enormous mall that contains the world’s largest indoor amusement park. The other, located nearby, is one of Korea’s grandest and most glamorous hotels, with 1,486 guestrooms, 17 restaurants and 15 meeting halls and banquet rooms. 1 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, tel 82 02 317 7211.
Novotel Seoul Ambassador Gangnam
With nine rooms for meetings and 332 for guests, the Novotel Ambassador Gangnam is quiet, unassuming and in the heart of Seoul’s business district — exactly what someone who’s spent a day on the conference floor might call paradise. 130 Bongeunsaro, Gangnam-gu, tel 82 02 567 1101.
The Westin Chosun combines Art Deco style with modern convenience, having recently slipped Westin’s Heavenly Beds and LCD televisions within its 1914-era walls. The 453-room Seoul landmark also includes eight function rooms and a 5,845-square-foot ballroom that seats 500. 87 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, tel 82 02 771 0500.
The UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood of Balat rivals İstanbul’s Old City for its historic significance, with an added splash of color. Its cobbled hilly streets boast a full rainbow of houses, cafés, restaurants and churches painted in pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues — parts even surpassing my native San Francisco’s steep, colorful corridors. The most vibrant stretch of homes, dating anywhere from 50 to 200 years old, runs along Kiremit Caddesi.
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