With 5000 years of sometimes turbulent history behind it, Korea has really staked its claim over the past 10 years as a global meetings hub.
BY GRAEME KEMLO
Here where infrastructure is almost a mantra, Korea has erected nine modern convention centres with meeting space for 2200 to 14,500; it has 620 hotels with more than 67,000 total guest rooms; eight international airports link to 170 cities in 60 countries; and two new convention centres are currently under construction in Seoul alone.
On a recent return visit to Korea, after a 20 year absence, it is easy to see why the country is ranked eighth in the world as an international meetings host, with Seoul ranked fifth city behind only Singapore, Brussels, Paris and Vienna for meetings.
While Gangnam-gu business district and its Olympic Games precinct was Seoul’s showcase in the late 1980s, the old downtown Seoul CBD is now gleaming with world-class architecture in office towers, hotels and new public buildings juxtaposed with centuries-old palaces and temples.
Seoul Plaza, site of independence and pro-democracy protest movements is again courting controversy. An austere Japanese-era City Hall is almost enveloped in a modern glass wrap, backed by a 13-storey building comprising 7000 glass panels – it looks like a wave about to crash over the old Colonial HQ – and opinions are divided.
Watching over this is Korea’s oldest hotel, The Chosun, established in 1914, beside the famous Temple of Heaven shrine and apparently brimming with good feng shui. Now known as the Westin Chosun, it is a popular meetings hotel with its 456 rooms and refurbished Grand Ballroom (1000 cocktail, 500 banquet) plus six meeting spaces for up to 200 on the dedicated second floor conference area.
Nearby the 22-storey Plaza Hotel recently refurbished its 400 stylish rooms. It has seven meeting rooms for 30 to 700, including a ballroom that can banquet 500.
Under construction for a November 2012 opening is the 434-room Conrad Seoul with seven conference rooms and a main ballroom (900 theatre, 720 banquet, 1080 cocktails).
Seoul’s largest events gravitate to COEX Exhibition and Convention Centre with its four exhibition halls and 100 meeting areas. A four-storey venue that includes Asia’s largest underground shopping mall (200 shops, 100 restaurants), it attracts 100,000 visitors a day, is surrounded by 12 four and five star hotels and includes an urban airport check-in terminal.
In stark contrast to CEOX across the road is the 1200-year-old Bongeunsa Temple, through Jinyeo-mun (the Gate of Suchness – ‘things just as they are’), a mid-city haven for traditional Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism. It offers day programs for up to 30 delegates or partners and a two day templestay experience of monastic life.
Another urban convention option in this city of 10 million is 63 Convention Centre on the Han River in Yeongdeungpo-gu. It has eight rooms for 30-300 across three floors of meeting space including a 1339 sq m convention centre (1800 theatre, 800 classroom and 1200 banquet).
About 15 minutes northeast of Seoul on top of Mount Acha lies Sheraton Grande Walkherhill and its sister property, W Seoul. Combined the two hotels offer 830 rooms, 15 restaurants and bars. An icon for 50 years the Sheraton has hosted major international events and recently an official dinner for 1000 to open the G50 Nuclear Summit in March and a reception for 1000 medical conference delegates in April.
Like a club within a club, Douglas House offers a business retreat separate from the main hotel towers with accommodation, meeting rooms and spacious reception terrace overlooking the Han River – it was apparently a favourite of George W Bush.
Among the more interesting meeting spaces currently under construction in Seoul is Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Exhibition Centre, set on the site of an ancient castle from the Chosun dynasty. A new landmark building designed by award-winning female architect, Zaha Hadid, it is expected to become a local icon similar to the Sydney Opera House and Spain’s Bilbao Museum. With a metallic skin, its free form design looks like liquid mercury. It totals 85,000 sq m with three basement floors and two floors above ground, featuring two convention halls and a series of exhibition halls.
Even Seoul’s railway station is getting a convention centre due in 2015. It will have a 23,000 sq m conference facility with a 3000-seat plenary hall and exhibition space of 16,000 sq m.