BI WORLDWIDE’s event design manager Heidi Williams and project executive Michael Pollard share their thoughts on why South Korea shouldn’t be overlooked as an emerging small group incentive event destination.[hr gap=”30″]
The Seoul of the country
As part of BI WORLDWIDE’s in:sight project and commitment to exploring new and emerging event destinations, we were recently lucky enough to spend four nights and five days exploring South Korea with event partners on the ground Channel K, passionately represented by industry specialist Susan Scales and her team at GMC. Our itinerary was jam-packed full of site visits and exciting South Korean activities, but we honestly felt we only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer for smaller incentive groups.
Seoul, the Capital of South Korea, felt like a blend of New York, London and Singapore with a preserved level of Asian hospitality that sees almost everything said or delivered with at least one bow. The city was very much a tale of harmonious contrast: ancient Palaces that preserve almost 5,000 years of history nestled amongst impressive skyscrapers, all set against a stunning mountainous backdrop and a culture of humble respect and sincerity. Did you know South Korea is the most wired country in the world? It has the fastest broadband speeds (they were using 5G back in 2017) and free public WiFi available almost everywhere – even walking along the city streets!
Sleeping in South Korea
It quickly became apparent that occupancy remains at a consistent average of around 70% throughout the year in the Capital – so planning early is important.
The international hotel product offering is impressive, with new additions opening all the time. We were hosted by the Hyatt Group and woke up to the sun rising over the most spectacular city skyline view each morning from the large and ultra-modern guestrooms of the Grand Hyatt Seoul.
A quick Google will throw up thousands of hotel options throughout the country, brands such as Hyatt, Four Seasons, InterContinental and Marriott to name a few in addition to national brands ‘Shilla’ and ‘Lotte’ that compete well on the world stage for five-star luxury and business class accommodation. Larger hotels enable a buy-out for events but can easily accommodate smaller incentive groups and most meetings. For even smaller groups, a high-end boutique hanok (house) can accommodate up to 10 guests in traditionally decorated rooms complete with ‘yo’, futon style bedding, sleeping ‘ondol’ (on the heated floor).
Beer with a side of BBQ Chicken
Korean food is rapidly gaining in popularity around the globe owing to the traditional fermentation preparation loading the delicacies with good bacteria that strengthens the body’s immune system. For guests to feel utterly embroiled within the Korean culture, a traditional dining experience sat cross-legged to a low table in a quaint Hanok is a must! This is not to say that guests must dine in this style throughout the duration of their trip – western cuisine is everywhere! Our hotel was home to no less than 12 restaurants and bars offering a variety of international cuisines.
The likes of Starbucks, Burger King, Pizza Hut and the golden arches are everywhere, which can provide a sense of familiarity in an unfamiliar place. Of course, we wouldn’t recommend those to a group, but you get the picture. We would, however, recommend the perfectly prepared and presented Korean royal court cuisine served at Korea House. This is a fantastic venue in the heart of the capital that is used to working with groups. Set in a traditional Korean building in the style of the Gyeongbok Palace, guests can enjoy a range of cultural experiences followed by a traditional dance performance. The sight of Korean dancers floating elegantly across the stage, portraying one of the five surviving stories of the Korean pansori is simply mesmerising.
A must-visit attraction for a group is the iconic Namsan Seoul Tower, located high above the city atop Namsan Mountain. Originally a broadcasting tower, the site has now become a beloved cultural space featuring an observatory and revolving high-end French restaurant, n.GRILL. The N-Tower is the second highest point in Seoul, behind the fifth tallest building in the world – Lotte World Tower, an almost Shard-like 123-floor skyscraper that is home to the world’s highest glass floor observatory. Whilst fast-track to the N-Tower observation deck isn’t yet available, a group with a dinner reservation (and healthy budget to cover it) at n.GRILL get to skip the queue to enjoy a spectacular 360° view of the city.
Seoul’s craft beer scene is quickly growing with many taprooms around the city catching on to the global trend. We visited one such establishment and enjoyed a typical evening of craft beer tasting and Korean BBQ chicken eating – heaven! We continued our newfound love-affair with Korean beer and chicken at one of the city’s Baseball stadiums on our final night – anything to prolong our final evening prior to departure.
It’s safe to say there’s no shortage of private event and dining venues. Whilst we certainly didn’t see them all (we would have needed another week!), our favourite was Some Sevit, a floating island in the middle of the Han River. The venue was unlike anything we had seen before and offered a range of spaces, both indoor and out, for a variety of group size. Every event planner’s dream!
As London tourists flock to Buckingham Palace to observe the Changing of the Guards, visitors to Seoul should not depart without having experienced the Changing of the Royal Guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace. This is a re-enactment from the Joseon Dynasty era, performed exactly as it used to be, with guards wearing royal uniforms, carrying traditional weapons and playing traditional instruments. The stark difference here is that you will see many visitors donning the colourful traditional attire – hanbok. This can easily be arranged for groups as part of the activity to enhance the overall experience.
Find your inner warrior!
The Korean martial art Taekwondo provides a great experiential activity for a private group session with the professionals at the World Taekwondo Headquarters! Branded and personalised uniforms – Dobok – can be provided for each guest as a fantastic take-away. In addition, the group can enjoy a mind-blowing performance by the Kukkiwon Taekwondo Demonstration Team before or after their private session, which would offer a great opportunity for groups to immerse themselves in the local culture. The high-octane show is sure to inspire even the most conservative of delegates into drawing on their inner warrior to chop through a plank of wood with their bare hand!
Across the tree-lined Hangnam River lies Gangnam, an area that inspired the world-famous song (which we are sure you will now not be able to get out of your head for at least the next ten minutes!). This cosmopolitan area is home to gleaming skyscrapers, designer brands and stylish restaurants. This is also where the right group might like to try their hand as a K-Pop star in one of the many studios. Psy lookalikes can even be arranged, either as a human signpost on a dine-around evening, or just for the sheer fun of it!
Where North meets South
Our personal highlight was a tour of the DMZ. It’s not quite possible to put into words how the experience made us feel but it is certainly something that neither one of us will ever forget. Seeing North Korea’s Propaganda Village from the Dora observatory was mind-shifting, and venturing into an actual infiltration tunnel (not for the claustrophobic), was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Of course, including a tour such as this would require careful consideration as it’s built upon a highly sensitive and ongoing situation. However, our personal takeaway from the experience was one of education and enlightenment.
Although the media exposure seems solely focused on the political situation linked to the border, our experience was that of a country making the very best of that situation. Before we travelled to South Korea, we ran a survey to gather perceptions on South Korea and interestingly, those who hadn’t previously travelled to South Korea shared a similar perception of an unsafe, corrupt and concrete-filled jungle. The reality we experienced couldn’t be more different.
The DMZ provided plenty of political touch points, but they were merely fleeting reminders overridden by an optimistic and often unexpected reality. From the vantage point of a children’s theme park located along the DMZ, we saw the start of a half-marathon, the trail of which ran along the DMZ line. We perused the souvenir shops where you could purchase sections of DMZ wire fence, chocolate made from beans grown within the DMZ and a range of other paraphernalia. Whilst neither of us was sure what to expect as we boarded the tour bus that morning, we certainly weren’t expecting that! So, although this is a country blemished by political conflict, the bigger conflict is between the perception and the reality.
Exploring some more
While there is certainly more than enough to fill a five-day programme in Seoul itself, as a compact destination (South Korea is roughly the size of England) a two centre experience is a breeze to do with either a short flight or a KTX ‘bullet train’ experience to either a centuries old city, or a great resort. We chose to sample both, catching a one-hour flight to the Hawaii-esque island of Jeju, and boarding the two-hour KTX train from the capital to Gyeongju City to explore one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites – Bulguksa. This Korean Buddhist Temple is located on the slopes of Mount Toham (‘Tohamsan’), which encompasses seven National treasures of South Korea. Gyeongju offered the perfect setting for a tea ceremony or a half day spent with a Buddhist monk for a fully immersive experience.
The efficiency of the country was evident throughout our visit. Everything ran on time, to the minute. The flight to Jeju and train to Gyeongju were no exception and set the tone for smooth and enjoyable journeys. Travel is also surprisingly cost effective – our first-class cross-country ticket, complete with delicious snacks, plush reclining seats and an attentive attendant who proudly bowed to his guests each time he entered the carriage, cost far less than a London to Birmingham equivalent.
Why travel all the way to South Korea?
South Korea is a long-haul destination, but no further than Hong Kong or Singapore which are both popular MICE destinations. We flew with British Airways which offers direct daily flights from London Heathrow. The outbound flight was just under 11 hours, while the return was a little longer at around 12.
Korean Air and Asiana Airlines also offer direct flights from the UK, with indirect flights offered by KLM via Amsterdam and Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Nearly every national carrier in Europe and the US offer direct flights, which works well for multi-national groups.
Incheon International Airport is seriously impressive! Despite being one of the largest and busiest airports in the world, it has been rated the best airport worldwide by Airports Council International every year since 2005 and as the world’s cleanest airport and the world’s best international transit airport by Skytrax. It is also one of the fastest airports in the world for customs processing AND they report having only a 0.0001% baggage mishandling rate!
If that’s not impressive enough, as soon as you land, adorable airport ‘bots’ from local electronics giant, LG, are on standby to answer your questions and even guide you wherever you wish to go.
When it comes to departing South Korea, this is an experience in itself! On departure, you’ll discover a golf course, spa, private sleeping rooms, an ice-skating rink, a casino, indoor gardens, an award winning duty-free shopping mall and a Museum of Korean Culture. There are complimentary performances and a range of crafts you can try your hand at. We decorated a small soban (a tray-like table) using Najeon, a decorative technique where cut pieces of mother-of-pearl are applied to the surface, which kept us entertained (and our credit cards safe) for approximately 20 minutes.
The future of South Korea for the MICE Industry
South Korea is far from an emerging destination when it comes to large scale congresses; numbers of up 30,000 have been easily accommodated in the capital previously, whilst Busan on the south-east coast has catered for over 40,000. The country handles events like this with ease – the infrastructure and capability are phenomenal. Regionally, incentives to South Korea are popular and continue to gain in number, but for some reason Europe seems slow to catch onto this gem!
The Korea MICE Bureau acts as the convention bureau within the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) which has been putting specialists in place in Europe since 2014 to promote their services. UK based and appointed MICE Marketing Representative on behalf of Korea Tourism Organisation, Anne Ridyard and her colleagues are working to promote the destination for all types of business events, offering free and impartial advice to planners and incentives for group bookings whatever the size.
Kayla Lee, the founder of Channel K, had a vision to expand into the UK incentive sector and approached GMC for their support back in 2015. GMC founder Susan Scales visited the country shortly after and has been working closely with the team ever since. She passionately believes that South Korea provides a great incentive opportunity for the UK incentive market; a destination that few have visited, but one that really works. And we agree!
We both came away wanting more. Feeling enlightened as to what South Korea has to offer a European group and understanding the country and culture for what it truly is. And what it truly is, in our opinion, is a seriously impressive and established large-scale event destination, but most definitely, a relatively untapped emerging small group incentive destination. A bustling metropolis filled with a preserved and sincere culture. A MICE hub skilled at handling large and complex events with ease, but one that is only just starting to recognise itself as a small high-end incentive hot spot of the future.