Taking the Lead
South Korea has strengthened its efforts to attract more visitors following the Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak in early 2015.
Although travellers have returned since the government declared last September that the country was clear from the disease, the total number of visitors to the country still fell 6.8 per cent last year to 13.28 million, compared with a 16.6 per cent increase in 2014.
For MICE business, the outlook is still promising, as the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) announced last December that it had secured seven major international congresses between 2017 and 2021 with a total of 22,000 participants, together with nine incentives groups for 2016 with 40,000 participants.
Seoul, Busan and Jeju (formerly known as Cheju Island) are the top MICE destinations in Korea, and the convention bureaus in each are working hard to grow their business. Maureen O'Crowley, executive director of the Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB), says the bureau will continue its efforts to attract more visitors from regional markets, while diversifying its offerings and marketing to attract a wider range of clientele.
"With continued strong recognition and interest from the markets of China, Japan and Southeast Asia, we will continue to work to accommodate visitors from these markets. We also want to market Seoul's strong merits as a business event destination, and our goal is to extend Seoul's global reach as a business events destination," O'Crowley says.
She says one major focus is to build upon existing programmes while establishing new ones. "For example, we plan to expand the range of our Seoul MICE Cards for delegates of qualifying business events to use on public transport and a number of cafes, convenience and retail stores, and admission to Seoul's top attractions such as royal palaces and museums."
SCB will also expand the scope of its popular MICE special tours to include new destinations catering to a broader range of industries such as medical, automobile and electronics, and unique city experiences such as biking and tours of the Seoul City Wall trail.
In Busan, the MICE business has prospered since it was designed as an official "international meeting city" by the Korean government in 2005. Last year, 8,812 MICE events were held in city, of which over 900 were international meetings.
According to Peter Jang, chief marketing officer of the Busan Tourism Organisation (BTO), the city has all the favourable conditions and infrastructure of a MICE destination, including a wide variety of meeting and exhibition facilities, easy international accessibility, plenty of hotels, tourist attractions, food, entertainment, business connections and natural environment.
Jang says with increasing rivalry from other cities in the region, BTO is looking to maximise Busan's advantages and secure its position as one of the most competitive MICE destinations in Asia. It will also focus on attracting megasized association meetings and intergovernmental meetings.
"We will focus more on attracting corporate meetings and incentive travellers from Greater China and work together with the Busan Exhibition and Convention Centre [BEXCO], hotels and the Korea Convention Bureau," he says.
Jang adds that building up the city's branding and a positive image as a MICE destination is also very important. "Busan is a mecca of moviemaking, and the Busan International Film Festival is the leading such event in Asia-Pacific. We also utilise Hallyu [Korean Wave of pop culture] marketing with the One Asia Hallyu Festival to be held in November."
An island off the southern coast of South Korea, Jeju became a "Free International City" in 2002, offering visa-free access for visitors from over 180 countries, including China.
It is an ideal destination for combining leisure and business, with its world-class hotels, modern convention facilities and natural surroundings, including several Unesco World Heritage sites.
Jeju's MICE infrastructure got a boost last year with the opening of several new hotels, including the Jeju Booyoung Hotel and Resort near the International Convention Centre, providing 449 rooms and a 1,000-seat convention hall.
Cho Jinhun, marketing director of the Jeju Convention and Visitors Bureau, says 85 per cent of MICE visitors surveyed by the bureau were happy with their experience on the island.
"We are promoting Jeju to MICE participants and have been using various strategies to encourage them to spend more here," he says.
These include the Jeju MICE Card launched last year, offering MICE visitors various benefits such as access to public transport and discounts at participating stores, restaurants and tourism sites. It also introduced the Jeju Olle walking trails for visitors to discover the island's beauty and culture.
According to Cho, Jeju's key strength is incentive tours, with China being the key focus in past years, but that has shifted to growing the Southeast Asia and Japanese markets.
"We will also seek growth from international and international conferences, but the best growth is expected to come from the exhibition business, which has shown strong demand recently."