For the last thirty years, Seoul has been doing it bigger, better and faster, driving a culture of excellence in every sector that is increasingly stealing the global spotlight for innovation and development.
Home to one of the original Asian Tiger economies, the country’s rise to success began after the Korean War, led by a population focused on education and motivated to succeed. With few natural resources and a limited amount of territory, South Korea created an export-based economy and this continues to be the fuel for the country’s incredible growth.
While the economy may be based on exports, the strength of that economy starts at home and that’s one of the first things a visitor will notice. Look around, almost everything is Korean-made here. Over 85 percent of the cars and vehicles on the road are Korean, appliances and electronics in homes, hotels and offices are Korean, popular stores, entertainment and best-selling cosmetics are all stamped Made in Korea.
Seoul is the economic and population epicenter of Korea, home to one out of five of the country’s citizens, yet the city retains a human side, with its many green spaces, historic monuments and ancient palaces. It’s also easy to find yourself caught up in the incredible social energy here, where business negotiations all day lead to nights filled with K-Pop, karaoke and soju.
Business travelers will find themselves in a world based on traditions and the respect of elders. Deference is always given to the older person, whether in a social or business setting, even if the age difference is minimal. This does not apply to those in higher positions in business, that always trumps the age difference. Bowing is done here, especially in formal situations. Be sure to bow from the waist, a simple head nod can be considered disrespectful.Touching, like hugging or a pat on the back, is also not good etiquette unless done between family members (or after a long night of drinking).
Eat, Drink, Sleep, Repeat
The flashy Gangnam neighborhood, made famous in K-Pop star Psy’s hit song “Gangnam Style,” is home to most of the city’s four- and five-star hotels, along with global luxury brand shopping. The area is also home to COEX, Seoul’s giant world trade, exhibition and convention center.
Gangnam translates to “South of the River” but smart travelers may want to head to Gangbuk (“North of the River”) to try the new Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, which opened last year in the historic Gwanghwamun area. The luxury property offers all the latest Four Seasons brand standards including sanctuary-like guestrooms with spa-like bathrooms. Golfers may never want to leave the hotel’s indoor, 3D virtual golf experience and driving range.
Seoul is a true foodie city, so one of the best things to do here is eat. Known for its street food, you’ll find vendors in most popular and busy areas of the city. Paying a visit to one of Seoul’s many food markets can elicit a wonderful degree of sensory overload in a matter of minutes.
Food markets like the Tongin Market use a token system, making the experience like attending a food fair. You buy 10 tokens for ?5,000 (about $4.20) and also receive a compartmentalized tray. Fill up your compartments with various servings of Korean specialties; most food items are about two tokens (the vendors also accept cash).
While the token system is fun for tourists, better food can be found in the Gwangjang Market, the city’s original food market, which sees a more local crowd. Learn a few words of Korean and take the time to greet and smile at the proprietors – it’s a great way to get a free sample.
No visit to Seoul is complete without some serious Korean BBQ and the city is filled with a tantalizing array of both styles and establishments in which to try them. It’s known locally as “galbi” and will usually focus on a gas grill in the center of a table. A selection of raw, marinated steak, ribs and short ribs is brought for self-grilling. The meats are accompanied by a delicious range of side dishes and of course, glass after glass of beer.
For fans of more Western fare, the city is currently enthralled with two food trends, locally-brewed craft beer and artisinal coffee. Specialty coffee shops are opening around the city (and are now a must-have for any luxury hotel) and the brew-pub has arrived here as well. 5 Extracts Cafe in the Hongdae district is considered one of the best coffee shops, opened a few years ago by one of the country’s top baristas. The Craftwork Taphouse’s three locations (Namsan, Pangya and Itaewon) are the premier places to try Korean craft beers, whether brewed in-house, from other Seoul breweries, or from around the world.
Alcohol, mainly beer and soju (a powerful distilled rice alcohol, similar in strength to sake) is a strong part of Korean business culture and society in general. They even have a name for it, “hoesik,” and the rituals can be a key part of business success. Drinking is a way for business associates to get to know each other better, for bosses to show respect for their employees (and vice versa) as well as a way to celebrate dealmaking.
Drinking etiquette is also of the utmost importance here, so business travelers should familiarize themselves with the local rules to avoid making a faux pas. Key concepts include that one should never pour their own drink, but should always pour for others, that it’s not proper to have an empty glass, nor to allow others to ever have one, nor is it good etiquette to refuse a drink. Also, glasses and bottles are always held or poured with two hands, never one.
For a seriously local drinking experience, visit one of the 3,000 tented pojangmachas throughout the city. Seoul’s version of dive bars, these remnants of the post-war era are now especially popular with 20- and 30-somethings, along with the traditional customer, office workers known locally as the “necktie army.”
With plastic sheeting walls, picnic table seating, cheap soju and a menu limited to hot, spicy and salty snacks, the semi-permanent pop-up places are packed most weeknights with groups of co-workers. Drinking sessions here can often lead to singing sessions at one of Seoul’s many karaoke bars.
New Seoul, Old Seoul
For name-brand shopping, the Myeongdong district is like a giant outdoor mall, with typical chain stores, both Western and Korean. A trip to the über-Korean Lotte department store can be a highlight of a visit to the area. Part of the store is dedicated to foreign shoppers, offering hands-free, duty-free shopping. You pick out what you like, make the purchase, then the items will be waiting for you at the airport prior to boarding your flight.
Itaewon is the international district with souvenir shops and familiar Western fast food brands. You’ll find the area filled with street vendors and expats buying from them. Insadong is a better alternative, a smaller, more compact shopping area that has a real local flavor. Be sure to wander down the little side streets; along these narrow lanes, you’ll find great hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars as well as antique shops.
The Dongdaemun area is the city’s wholesale clothing district, with many of the stores also selling to the public. It’s home to the famous night clothing market, where the wholesale stores open to the public from 9:00 PM, selling through the night. These are low-priced, Korean-made fashions – think what you might find in a Target or Walmart.
In that same area, for stylish and unique gift items, check out the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the city’s new art and design center. It’s home to many designers and design firms, but they also have a great shop that showcases innovative, cool products and those of many of the tenants. It’s a design marketplace, with about 50 vendors, open to the public.
The Zaha Hadid-designed building itself is a piece of art, quickly becoming one of the city’s most-photographed structures. After dark, the exterior of the DDP, as its known, is illuminated by a field of 20,000 artificial flowers, each separately lit with an LED inside. The view of the field of lights and the reflection of the lights on the curves of the metal-sheathed building are both a must-see for Seoul visitors.
For runners and walkers, the Cheonggyechoen creek is a seven-mile stretch of green space and flowing water that cuts through the heart of Seoul. The natural creek was covered over by post-war development, then re-developed and re-opened ten years ago as a public recreation area. The banks of the Han River, which divides the city in two, have over 50 miles of biking and walking trails as part of several large riverside recreation areas. River and dinner cruises are available for sightseeing.
A trip to the observation level of the Seoul Tower, atop Namsan Mountain, just might feature Seoul’s best views at almost 1,600 feet above sea level. Housing several restaurants and cafes, the Tower also functions as a giant air quality indicator; a blue glow at night indicates the city’s air quality is in the “good” range.
For an immersive look at Korean Buddhist temple culture, a visit to the Jinkwansa Temple provides a deeply rewarding experience. It’s a wonderful day trip when paired with a hike in the surrounding Bukhansan National Park. Or for the full experience arrange for an overnight temple stay.
Meet & Greet
To streamline the meeting and convention process for planners and attendees, the city government has partnered with private-sector organizations to create the Seoul MICE Alliance, made up of hotels, venues and other related providers. The Seoul Tourism Organization offers an impressive suite of services for meeting planners, from a 24 hour local help line to financial subsidies for marketing and advertising.
Seoul’s overall MICE infrastructure is quite impressive. Highlights including a mini-airport terminal inside the COEX complex, allowing convention attendees to check-in for flights, make changes and / or check baggage, all on-site.
Seoul is a relatively compact city with a strong, safe public transit infrastructure. Business travelers can make use of several transit cards offering unlimited rides for a specific time period. The subway system is excellent with stations near all the key business, shopping, entertainment and cultural destinations.
Taxis are everywhere and not very expensive, but many drivers do not speak English. Uber was operating in the city, but stopped in late 2015 and is currently negotiating for a return.
Seoul is well served by a range of international carriers, with the most flights from hometown airlines Korean Air and Asiana. With fleets of 747s, A380s and the like, these carriers serve global destinations from Incheon Airport. Both these award-winning Korean airlines are known for attentive service, foodie-worthy menus and seriously well-curated wine lists.
By Freddy Sherman