Seasoned MICE professionals will be familiar with Seoul's dominant convention hubs - aT Center, COEX, and SETEC - but many might be surprised that this country of 50 million has numerous other modern, world-class centres. And since South Korea isn't a huge nation, about one-quarter of the size of California, with fantastic transportation and infrastructure, organising an event outside the traditional locales is eminently feasible, and will allow delegates to experience another side of this vibrant nation.
"Korea, a country that mixes traditional and modern cultures, has powerful energy and diverse attractions," Kee Hun Kim, Korea MICE Bureau Executive Director, told M&C Asia in October 2015. "More than 14 million foreigners visited Korea in 2014, and the Korean government is actively promoting the MICE industry. We have hosted many mega conventions such as the G20 Summit, and Amway incentive tours. Korea is a perfect destination for international conventions and incentive tours, offering state-of-the-art facilities, conference operations, hotels, tourist attractions, and sumptuous food."
The KTX high-speed train connects Seoul in the northwest to coastal Busan in the southeast in less than three hours, peaking at speeds of 350 km/h. Busan, a former capital of Korea, is the country's most popular summer holiday destination, offering, as Peter Jang, the lively Managing Director of Tourism and MICE Marketing for Busan Tourism Organisation puts it, "sun, sea, sand, and surfing." It's a beguiling city, with the 7.4km Gwangan Bridge, the second-longest bridge in South Korea, the world's fifth-busiest cargo port, the planet's largest department store (Shinsegae), a large marina, and modern, glass-sheathed towers, green spaces and bike lanes, a delightful marriage of the old and new.
"Busan has 81 separate MICE venues, and you can swim in the sea well into October," Jang continues, noting that it ranks ninth in the world's top 10 International Meetings Cities as per the International Meetings Statistics Report 2013 by the Union of International Associations. "It is accessible by land, sea, and air - 30 cities in 11 countries have direct flights here - and it has great sights like the Gamcheon Cultural Village, Gukje Market, and Centum City." The city certainly has a can-do sense about it, filled with cheerful, dynamic, active people.
Used for the opening and closing ceremonies for the annual Busan International Film Festival, the Busan Cinema Centre can host events for up for 5,000 people in its outdoor theatre - which has Korea's biggest screen - making it a fantastic choice for large events. Opened in 2011, it has a giant cantilevered roof that weighs 4,000 tons, state-of-the-art lighting, and spaces that include cinemas, a theatre, and a multipurpose hall.
The integrated MICE facility in Busan BEXCO has more than 90,000 square metres of exhibition, meeting, and convention space. The main exhibition hall is pillar-free and can house 1,800 booths, while the theatre-style auditorium is capable of seating 4,000 attendees.
The yacht club Bay 101 has fine reception spaces - a rooftop with striking water views that can host 150 people, or a more intimate basement area with textured-wood and cork walls that can fit 120 - as well as a yacht available for private groups. Diamond Bay also offers yachts that can host 70 people onboard - an incentive trip that will be a highlight to any trip to Busan.
The western neighbour of Seoul, the country's third-largest city has grown rapidly in the past 130 years - in 1883, when it became an international port, Incheon was home to less than 5,000 people. Today 2.9 million call it home, and apart from a thriving port it is where Seoul's international airport is located. It became Korea's first free economic zone in 2003, and Samsung and LG have a sizeable presence here. Other industries in the region include aviation, logistics, tourism, medical, bio-industry, IT, and biotech. There are also 13 UN organisations in the area, including the World Bank and Global Climate Fund, the first head office of the organisation in Asia. Within Incheon, Songdo is known as an international business district, a master plan that started in 2003 and will wind up in 2030.
Songdo Convensia, only a 20-minute drive from Incheon International airport, has a beautiful sweeping roofline that recalls the Taebaek Mountains that straddle the border between North and South Korea. It has the distinction of being Asia's first LEED certified convention centre, and the 1.2 million-square-feet centre has six hotels with almost 1,800 rooms within walking distance, and began an expansion in December 2015 that will wind up in June 2018, adding 16,000 square metres of exhibition hall space. High profile events held here include the 2009 Asia Pacific Cities Summit and the World Education Forum 2015, attended by delegates from 195 countries.
Directly across from Songdo Convensia, Songdo Central Park is inspired by its New York namesake and creates an oasis of green in the city. Spreading over 41 hectares, it has numerous walking path, waterways, a seawater canal, and many artworks and sculptures that add some visual flair. On the east side of the park, cafes and restaurants draw visitors, as do weekly evening performances of live jazz. The Gyeongwonjae Ambassador Incheon hotel, inside the park, is Korea's largest hanok (traditional Korean architecture) hotel, and is especially alluring when lit at night.
The coastal UNESCO World Heritage city of Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom that ruled large sections of the Korean peninsula from seventh to ninth century AD. Today akin to a museum without walls, Gyeongju is peppered with archaeological and cultural sites. For gourmands, the city is known for its rice, mushrooms, and beef.
The city's history is evident everywhere, with royal tombs containing Silla kings and queens and Buddhist temples dotted around the city. A little east of HICO, Silla Millennium Park recreates buildings, dramas, and performances from the Silla period. It's an intriguing attraction, equally didactic and classic tourist showcase that offers a fascinating peek into the past. The Drama Set section, where the horse and acrobatics shows take place daily, can be rented for special dinner events for up to 350 people, while small incentive groups should stay at the Ragung, or palace, a beautiful hotel with 16 interlocking houses connected by corridors, hewn by 80 carpenters that specialise in ancient architecture.