by Terri Hardin | May 02, 2017
South Korea is the little country that "could": Could rise out of poverty to become a technology superpower and an arbiter of pop culture; could offer glimpses of how a centuries-old culture functions in the modern world: could become a leader in the world of meetings and events.

Seoul, the capital, has approximately 130 hotels and two convention centers, the 5.3 million-square-foot COEX in the world-famous Gangnam District; and the 1.17 million-square-foot KINTEX in the Goyang District.

Seoul's dazzling downtown boasts such meeting properties as the 414-room Plaza Seoul, The Autograph Collection and the 1,120-room Lotte Seoul -- Downtown. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Plaza Seoul comprises an original sliver building with an adjacent annex. A makeover by Italian architect and designer Guido Ciompi has reinstated a mid-century modern "cool" to the guest rooms and meeting space. The Grand Ballroom, located in the Annex, reopened in September with more than 9,500 square feet of space that can hold up to 700 attendees, theater-style. Elsewhere, the fourth and top floors of the original building have more than 4,400 and 6,500 square feet respectively, featuring fabulous views of Seoul's City Hall and, at night, LED-lit skyscrapers.

If the Plaza is the type of property you'd expect to see in New York City, the 1,120-room Lotte Seoul is the type you'd imagine in Las Vegas. Like the Plaza, the Lotte is an original hotel that features a new wing. Two lavish lobbies, appointed in European-style decor, lead to 14 conference rooms. With nearly 12,000 square feet, the Crystal Ballroom (with foyer) can accommodate up to 1,800 delegates, while the second-largest, the 9,005-square-foot Sapphire Ballroom, can hold 750.

Shopping in Seoul is almost like breathing: just walk by a street market and your hands fill with handy gadgets and beautiful baubles; sadly, it also empties your pockets like magic. For hardcore shoppers, the gigantic department stores COEX, Shinsegae, and Lotte are practically biodomes in which shoppers can thrive indefinitely (until that empty pocket thing).

Meeting in Seoul

Seoul has all the trappings of any international city: a large airport, a dazzling downtown with skyscrapers, two railway hubs, an extensive subway system, and, last but not least, streets with lots and lots of traffic.

Which is why it's so surprising that, for the Rotary International Convention that recently took place in Seoul, traffic was stopped as 21,000 Rotarians marched through the streets.

According to Shannon M. Watson, CMP, CAE and director, meetings and events, for Rotary International, the 3K Walk for Peace (which was also open to members of the public) was organized by the host committee. "We wanted to do an event that would increase Rotary's public image, to encourage more membership growth in Korea." Participants were encouraged to walk either in the traditional dress of their country or, according to Melanie Adan of the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO), don the hanbok, the traditional garb of Korea.

The Korea convention was seven years in the planning, "which is not unusual," says Watson. "One of the main reasons Seoul was selected was because we had been seeing over the last 10 to 15 years a real surge in our Asian membership population. We try to go back to that part of the world. It's not so much a rotation as a question of 'where are our hot spots? And where do we anticipate our hot spots to be?'"

Three years out, a decision was made to move the main site from COEX to KINTEX. It was a good thing, too: Normal attendance for Asia--Pacific region is considered 25,000, but because Korea alone has 65,000 Rotarians, registration mushroomed. "We had 30,000 people registered by mid-January," says Watson; by the time of the show, "We had 44,607 in attendance; there were over 25,000 Koreans alone."