Gaining momentum: how Korea is bouncing back

Gaining momentum: how Korea is bouncing back

Catie Owen sits down with Korean Tourism Organisation (KTO)’s acting president Sang Yong Shin to discuss the buzz around South Korea’s MICE

For anyone with an interest in popular culture, the surge of affection for all things South Korea over the last few years has been unmistakable.

Even before 2021’s mega-hit-series Squid Game, 2020 had seen two defining moments for the cultural phenomenon; with Parasite making history as the first foreign language film to receive Best Picture at the Oscars, and renowned K-Pop boyband, BTS achieving the musical genre’s first Grammy nomination in a major category.

Whilst South Korea has captivated the hearts and minds of people everywhere, has its MICE industry received the same love? KTO’s acting president, Sang Yong Shin, has the answers.

Recouping losses

Shin states that, prior to the pandemic’s economic upheaval, the South Korean MICE market was growing quickly:

“Before Covid-19, we saw an increase in the number of people visiting Korea for MICE events. In 2019 we reached 399,000 visitors. This was a 30% increase from the 2017 rate, which was about 187,000 visitors.”

“Korea’s MICE industry was hugely hit by Covid-19 – we saw quite a big drop in the number of people visiting for MICE events.”

As Asia’s fourth-largest economy – and the world’s tenth – re-numerating this loss was vital according to Shin: “Statistically, the MICE industry in Korea has created an output of around $80.6bn in terms of economic impact on the country.”

“In terms of its relation to income, we would say that it’s around $4.2bn. In terms of import, it would be about $1.8bn. This is the real economic effect on Korea.”

By planning “new events straight away” post-pandemic, the KTO aimed to get the MICE market back to 2019-levels as soon as possible. In doing so, the country has been able to track two key trends: where the market originates and what they are hosting.

Shin says that the country’s MICE market has since changed in both size and origin: “Pre-pandemic, we had a large number of visitors from the regions surrounding Korea, such as China, Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries.”

“As of 2022, we now have a good number of people coming in from the US, China, Vietnam, Canada and the Middle East. From here, we are looking to recover about 50% of the loss we experienced by the end of this year.”

The range of MICE events planned in South Korea this year is as diverse as their organising companies. Shin explains how the KTO has broken down the type of events that Korea is currently in demand for: “About 30 – 32% of held events are what we would consider ‘small’ events, about 28% are what we would call ‘medium’ and 40% are ‘large’ events.”

Spreading the love

Due to its metropolitan nature, Seoul has historically been the MICE organiser’s Korean location of choice, KTO has been working hard to spread the love to other regions.

Shin details: “There is a trend with Seoul that, as the capital of Korea, it is the place where people are the most utilised for MICE events. But we’ve also seen a trend where other regions are being utilised for MICE-style events.”

To demonstrate, in May 2022 the city of Daegu hosted the World Gas Conference, as the region is, “well-known for its technology and industrial events.” Busan, the country’s second-largest city, is itself a renowned MICE hub – having cultivated venues and hotels around its popular seaport.

Even further from Seoul, the Yeosu World Island Exhibition in 2026 is expected to attract two million international visitors to the coastal city.

Shin summarises KTO’s approach to spreading MICE across the peninsula: “We’re working hard to ensure that regions other than Seoul are getting the spotlight as MICE destinations by providing regional dedicated tour programs and support funds.”

Dedicated to development

To increase the MICE appeal of South Korea’s regions, the country has dedicated time and resources to improving and upscaling its venues. Here, no stone has been left unturned as convention centres, hotels, conference spaces and incentive offerings have been reimagined.

“In Seoul, which has hosted 600 business events since the beginning of 2022, we have over 400 hotels and 70,000 rooms to accommodate delegates,” Shin explains.

“There are over 70 luxury hotels which are four-to-five star, including historical and modern hotels run by artificial intelligence.”

The MICE scene of Korea’s metropolitan areas leans into its wide variety of accommodation. Shin says that the KTO works to pair event attendees with hotels and venues which best suit their event: “We are excited that hotels work alongside the centres to welcome MICE visitors.”

“Our support schemes work very closely with convention bureaus to attract more business events to Korea. When we work with them, we can provide the information and support they need – especially as organisers are looking for different types of support following Covid-19.”

More programmes like this are in development, which will match organisers with the ideal venues and incentives for their events.

Working alongside Korea’s national associations has also been key to revitalising the country’s MICE sector, as KTO has been encouraging them to host events alongside international associations. This has been a hands-on process for KTO, who are involved in both the bidding and hosting stages of events in the country.

“We have a lot of great feedback from international associations,” Shin comments. “For these events, we have a funding association that we are looking to grow even bigger.”

Maximising on tech

Reimagining Korea’s MICE venues stretches further than brick-and-mortar. As the first country in the world to roll out a nationwide 5G network, hybrid events are close to their heart.

South Korea is maximising on its pre-existing IT infrastructure to corner the post-pandemic hybrid market: “Due to the recent pandemic, a lot of visitors will be considering what an event’s safety will be like. We really want delegates and organisers to feel that, when they visit Korea for a MICE event, there is no country which is safer. To that end, we are really focusing on the hybrid side in our support schemes.”

KTO’s interest in event-tech doesn’t stop at hybrid. Korea’s MICE sector has been investing in ‘engaging technology’ such as holograms, AI, and VR, according to Shin.

Reopening the borders

The constant flux of travel restrictions has been an added challenge to revitalising South Korea’s MICE industry.

Pre-pandemic, 21 flights per week were arriving at Incheon airport from London across several airlines. Now, only seven flights are operating on the same route. However, fewer flights are only one side of this challenge’s coin.

Although there is no mandatory quarantine period, travellers are required to take an arrival test and isolate until the results come through. Visitors are also made aware that while wearing masks outdoors is no longer required, by law they must be worn inside.

Restrictions both in South Korea and worldwide are prone to changing quickly and unexpectedly; this has been a wrench in KTO’s long-term planning: “Our developments really depend on the travel restrictions, because planning month-by-month is currently very unpredictable,” Shin says.

“Despite that, South Korea has great infrastructure to recoup our MICE industry’s losses.”

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