Korea’s capital city features up-to-date amenities such as a modern infrastructure and an efficient subway network, while still preserving its history. By Sandra Eagle, November/December 2008
Never mind the Forbidden City of Beijing, China, or the frenetic activity of Tokyo. Korea almost seems to be a grace note in the symphony of sound that is Asia. But the country of silent mountains beckons as an incentive or meeting destination with its own subtle charm.
It has been 20 years since Seoul, the capital of the Republic of South Korea, hosted the Olympic games. And now it’s angling for more of the international meeting, convention and incentive markets.
This city of 23-million people (the country itself contains 48.5-million) is a vast labyrinth of skyscrapers and bridges spanning the Hangang River, which bisects the city on an east/west axis and divides it into north and south components, much like the country itself. The ubiquitous mountains that dominate over 70 per cent of the country’s landmass surround the metropolis.
Seoul is a cosmopolitan city, boasts modern infrastructure, an efficient and complex subway network and enjoys the highest penetration of broadband Internet on Earth. An added plus is that the city air is less polluted and more breathable than in other Asian cities. In 2006, Seoul was ranked the second-most popular city in Asia by the Union of International Associations and the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) has embarked on an ambitious convention-building spree. The KTO has facilitated the construction of eight purpose-built convention centres in eight regions of the country, all constructed since 2000.
The COEX World Trade Center, in the eastern part of Seoul, is a massive complex, with 2.42-million sq. ft. on eight floors, four below ground and four above. It features a 6,500-seat convention hall, an 1,800-seat ballroom, a 1,100-seat auditorium, plus 387,650 sq. ft. of exhibition space and more than 89 small to medium-sized meeting rooms. Thirteen hotels are close enough to the center to walk, use public transit or are just a short cab ride away.
One of the latest additions to the Seoul hotel scene is the W Hotel, that shares a common footprint with the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill. For planners who like to keep the group together and in one place, this property sports two hotel complexes, with access to exemplary convention space. There are six floors of breakout meeting rooms, and the Walkerhill Vista Hall is a column-free ballroom with an 18-foot ceiling. The Sheraton Grande features a main tower with 360 rooms with panoramic views of the Hangang River. Other accommodations include the Sheraton Club, with private butler included, or for VIP guests, the Ashton House, a mountaintop villa for visiting dignitaries or for hosting gala receptions.
Interspersed amongst the modern concrete and glass spires, however, are the Royal Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. It is soon clear to the foreign visitor that the Korean culture reveres its ancestors and past history as a living entity.
Of particular interest are the historical temple monuments in Gyeongju and ancient Buddhist statues uncovered in the provincial mountains. In the 1930s, a postman on his daily route apparently discovered the Grotto of Seokguram. The magnificent golden Buddha, facing east, was built to protect the Shilla kingdom from invaders, namely the Japanese. The statue, now enclosed in a temple cut from the mountainside, is a pleasant 15-minute stroll through a magnificent pine forest. Close by is the Bulguksa Temple, built in 528 AD, also by the Shilla Dynasty. The Blue Cloud Bridge is probably the most photographed site in Korea, and in late fall, the site is tranquil, etched with the dying colours of autumn.
Scenic and serene, the ancient capital of the Shilla Kingdom seems to outlast the relentless march of time. Gyeongju province is about a two-hour KTX (high-speed train) ride from Seoul and is a must-see for a companion or incentive group.
Within the city of Seoul, the Royal Palace is an oasis of tranquility relative to the 24-hour hustle of downtown. Gyeongbokgung Palace sits in 40 acres of gardens and is the most impressive of the five palaces built in the city during the early Joseon Dynasty. Protected by traditionally garbed royal soldiers, the site also houses the National Folk Museum, offering an excellent overview of Korean cultural history.
Samcheonggak, a secluded sanctuary at the foot of the Bokuksan Mountains, offers up some special meeting history of its own. The site was originally used as a retreat for high- ranking government officials. In 1972, the largest of the six buildings, Ilhwa-dang, was built to host an historic Red Cross meeting between North and South Korea. Ilhwa means “harmonious union,” referring to the eternal hope that the divided peninsula will be reunified. Bought by the Metropolitan Government in 2000, the six traditional Korean buildings, with such lyrical names such as Pavilion of Deep Glow, Hall of Jade-Green Coolness and Hall of a Thousand Autumns, are available for rental by groups. Ilhwa-dang contains a restaurant, teahouse and performance hall. Smaller private rooms off the main restaurant offer more privacy. Group lessons can be arranged for the half-day by teachers designated as “National Intangible Cultural Properties,” with up to five decades of experience in the folk arts, music, tea ceremony, calligraphy and etiquette. The tranquility of the property is replete with the melodious sound of the nearby stream cascading down the mountain for attention.