There was a heady bustle around the lobby of the 653-room InterContinental Seoul COEX as everyone gathered for the opening ceremony of Korea MICE Expo 2013. It echoed through the high ceilings of the Philippe Starck-inspired lobby lounge, with its massive lamp shades dangling above oversized brown leather couches and plush purple chairs matching the lights overhead. From there, everyone proceeded from the lobby through an underground corridor to the 4.8 million-sf COEX Convention & Exhibition Center next door.
Overall, there was a palpable sense of optimism at this year’s MICE Expo with attendance from international hosted buyers higher by more than 50% over 2012.
Maureen O’Crowley, vice president of Seoul Tourism Organization, took the stage to welcome the crowd. She stated that Seoul is now the fifth most popular incentive travel destination in the world, up from 11th place just three years ago. Last year, the country hosted 563 conventions.
O’Crowley says credit goes to both the private and public sectors in making the city a world-class meetings destination, including in the addition of the 434-room Conrad Seoul in November 2012, and the opening of the 155-room JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul in December 2013.
That positive vibe carried over to the evening’s welcome dinner for 500 attendees, hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Tourism Organization in the Harmony Ballroom of the InterContinental. The four-course meal included seafood japchae—a modern update of a classic Korean glass noodle dish with sautéed seafood and veggies—followed by a light and creamy sweet pumpkin porridge topped by a drizzle of sesame oil, and finally grilled and marinated short ribs for the main course.
InterContinental COEX offers 36,000 sf of meeting space and great views of Han River and the upscale Gangnam district—popularized in the mega-viral Gangnam Style video.
The main attraction for groups sits at the foot of the mountain. Wolmi Korean Traditional Garden is a large complex modeled after a typical aristocratic Bukchon house and gardens from centuries past. Our guide described the living conditions of the time during our tour of the courtyards and spartan rooms, with all of us dressed in colorful period costume. The facility is an excellent setting for events with groups up to 500.
Incheon’s historic roots are evident as we navigate the hilly but easily walkable streets of Chinatown, dating back to the late 1800s. Many sites have been carefully preserved, such as the Japanese bank built in 1883 in a classic post-Renaissance style, and the Museum of Korean Immigration History where our guide explains how the city’s seaside locale made it a popular port for communities of foreigners. Like Chinatowns in the U.S., the district is now made up of mostly shops and restaurants. Our group of 20 dined at a Korean-Chinese restaurant, one of many in the area, enjoying a multi-course meal of Korean-inflected Chinese dishes (kimchi included) in one of several private dining rooms.
For relaxing after a day of meetings, and a world away from modern Incheon, visit Eurwangni Beach on rustic Yongyudo Island. The laid-back beach is lined with simple open-air restaurants serving fresh seafood brought in by local fishermen. At Haenam restaurant, we cooked shellfish on tabletop barbeques surrounded by multiple dishes of banchan—small plates of rice and various kimchis—and ladle from a shared tureen of seafood noodle soup.
Cold Korean beer and ocean breeze accompany our meal, as kids play in tide pools on the beach below. It’s a totally fun group experience to complement all of the cosmopolitan glamour, and it’s a great way to learn about local Korean cuisine, customs and culture while bonding with your clients and/or colleagues.
Best known as the birthplace of Samsung, Daegu is Korea’s fourth largest city, rimmed by mountains about two hours via high-speed train from Seoul. It has an easy-going and approachable style, while it’s tree-lined streets and walkability give it a feel of a pleasant university city.
The main attraction for MICE groups is Daegu Exhibition & Convention Center (EXCO), with 290,000 sf of event space after doubling in size in 2011. The new addition includes a conical-shaped auditorium with 1,300 seats, inspired by nearby Mt. Palgong, while the front façade is made up entirely of an enormous curved glass shield that provides splashes of natural light throughout the corridors.
A short walk through an underground tunnel brings you to the 340-room Hotel Inter Burgo, with 22,000 sf of meeting space. The Spanish-owned hotel features an old world charm with large period paintings and dark wood-grain furnishings.
After a 20-minute bus ride from downtown through a lush mountain landscape, we arrive at our destination near Donghwasa Temple on Palgong Mountain. Hiking trails criss-cross the expansive nature park, as we trek the remaining mile under a canopy of trees along a gently flowing stream. It’s a perfectly peaceful setting, ideal for our afternoon group activity like participating in a traditional Buddhist tea ceremony. Our instructor demonstrates the proper brewing and serving technique, while explaining the philosophy behind the ritual. Groups can also take part in an overnight “templestay.”
Halfway down the mountain, the bus stops at a country house, which turns into one our trip’s best F&B experiences. The Dawoo Sanbang restaurant serves fresh organic versions of traditional Korean cuisine. Curios and antiques fill the corners and walls of our dining room as we’re served Hangang Soo Yook—sweet and sour pork with Japanese apricot and pickled perilla leaf.
From Daegu, it’s less than an hour by bullet train to the port city of Busan on Korea’s southeastern coast. The second largest city in Korea is industrious and modern with gleaming new office towers. It’s also becoming a popular destination for international tourists and incentive groups, thanks to an attractive setting between the coast and mountains.
The Westin Chosun, Busan is an elegant, breezy and light-filled hotel with 290 rooms and 17,000 sf of meeting space. One of the best features of the hotel is its location on a spit of land between Songnim and Dongbaek Park, overlooking spectacular Haeundae Beach, Korea’s largest.
Located a short stroll from the hotel on the edge of Dongbaek Park, the Nurimaru APEC House was built for the 2005 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and today is available for group tours and special VIP events. The circular structure with wraparound deck offers sweeping views of the sea, while the modern interior includes traditional Korean elements such as colorful roof beams and laquerwork wall murals inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Another venue option is BEXCO convention center with nearly one million sf of meeting and exhibition space, which has hosted everything from FIFA World Cup events to Elton John concerts. The peaked angle of the 8-story glass wall of the structure’s facade provides a dramatic flair as we approach the building. Groups can also take advantage of the nearby Busan Cinema Center, an exciting Frank Gehry-inspired building with 42,600 exterior LED lights for spectacular nighttime displays. The center has four theaters and an outdoor plaza for up to 4,000.
After a 10-minute drive along the coast, we arrive at Haedong Yonggung Temple, one of the only temples in the country located seaside and a popular attraction and educational opportunity for groups. Our guide from Jane Tour & DMC explains the history of the temple, built in 1376, and the background of artworks such as the 12 large statues at the entrance that depict each animal of the Korean zodiac. Later, she leads us down into a darkened sanctuary to sip from an underground spring, for purity and good health.
Perched high on the mountainous edge of the city in south Busan, Gamcheon Culture Village is another unique attraction. The area was once home to followers of the Taegeukdo religion who relocated here as war refugees during the 1950s, building colorful shack-size homes. As the sect’s numbers dwindled, the hilly neighborhood was turned into a special arts district in 2009. We follow artsy fish signs through the narrow labyrinth of alleyways, stopping to view one of a dozen houses turned into themed art projects by local artists. Wall murals dot the neighborhood, as well as impromptu cafés set up by locals. The government has sought to preserve and rejuvenate the area, with teambuilding and craftmaking programs available for groups.