A growing reputation among travellers, new hotels aplenty and stronger marketing efforts keep Seoul shining for events.
There is little disguising the fact that South Koreaâ€™s travel industry has been affected by deteriorating relations between Seoul and Beijing over the deployment of the US Armyâ€™s THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. The nationâ€™s MICE sector, however, is determined that temporary political impasses will not hamper its long-term development and growth.
The number of Chinese incentive travellers to Seoul climbed 33 per cent in 2016 on the previous year, surpassing 123,000 arrivals. Given the state of bilateral relations, however, that figure is likely to fall significantly this year, along with Chinese attendees at meetings, conventions and exhibitions.
â€śSeoul jumped to third spot on UIAâ€™s charts last year and we are working to build on that momentum for the business events sector this year,â€ť said Park Jinhyeok, director of the Seoul Convention Bureau.
â€śWe have just returned from a successful roadshow in Mumbai and New Delhi â€“ coordinated together with the Korea Tourism Organization, Incheon Tourism and Gyeonggi Tourism Organization â€“ in March, which was a first for us.
â€śWe are also planning similar roadshows and marketing efforts in other markets, such as South-east Asia, throughout 2017,â€ť Park added.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government has also stepped up its support for the sector, announcing in March an extra 10 billion won (US$8.74 million) in funding for 2017 and devising a five-point plan to make the capital city a more attractive business event destination.
The effort includes making more exhibitions and conventions eligible for financial support, developing a new range of promotion packages, and devising new programmes to provide delegates with hands-on experience of Korean culture, arts and entertainment.
That coincides with ambitious plans to develop the district around COEX, Seoulâ€™s largest convention facility, and Jamsil Sports Complex into an â€śinternational exchange complex.â€ť The city has announced that it intends to create a global MICE hub â€śwhere exhibitions, conventions, sports, entertainment and waterside cultural leisure will exist in harmonyâ€ť.
Work on the project, which will include at least two hotels and a skyscraper that will be the tallest in the country and has been tentatively named the Global Business Centre, will start in 2019, with construction due to be completed in 2025.
Additional infrastructure is also coming online, with a 1.7km stretch of the Seoul Station Overpass â€“ once a key artery through the centre of the city â€“ reopening on May 20 as a park that is also available for event usage. Titled Seoullo 7017, the project is the first in a series designed to make the city more pedestrian-friendly.
Seoul is also experiencing a surge in the number of luxury, international hotel chains opening new properties or expanding their existing facilities.
The Signiel Seoul â€“ the cityâ€™s first six-star hotel â€“ occupying the 76th to 101st floors of the Lotte World Tower, opened in April to offer 235 guestrooms
In the same month, the former W Seoul Walker Hill reopened as the drastically remodeled Vista Walker Hill.
Come September, Seoul will welcome yet another high-end property by both Ambassador Hotel and AccorHotels, in the Yongsan district. A Four Points by Sheraton property will also rise in the up-market Gangnam area in November.
â€śI believe South Korea in general and Seoul in particular has developed into a very desirable destination for all travel sectors, but going forward I see that as being particularly applicable for the (business events) sector,â€ť said Lubosh Barta, general manager of Four Seasons Hotel Seoul.
Barta pointed to the countryâ€™s safety, developed infrastructure and public transport system, and thriving history, cuisine, pop culture, music, shopping, fashion and design scenes as strong lures for business event groups.
The 317-room Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, located between City Hall and Gyeongbokgung Palace, is itself among the cityâ€™s newer hotels, having opened in September 2015.
Housing two ballrooms and six meeting rooms across 2,196m2 of space, the hotel targets smaller, high-end corporate groups.
Barta is not fazed by the influx of new luxury hotels in the city, and welcomes them instead. He insists that the hotel boom underlines his belief that the destination is gaining popularity, while the added competition ensures that properties be constantly innovative in their business events offerings and deliver a consistently high level of service.