Lauren Arena
Dec 15, 2017

Selling Seoul: A lesson in destination marketing

South Korea’s capital is shaking off its geopolitical curse to win business ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Seoul

In a year characterised by uncertainty and disruption, geopolitics has unduly influenced tourism and the business events industry. And nowhere is this more evident than across the Korean Peninsula.

For destination marketers and convention bureaus in South Korea, battling economic sanctions from China while weathering a growing threat of nuclear war has proved difficult, but in the country’s capital, the Seoul Tourism Organisation (STO) remains steadfast in its quest to attract business, especially from the lucrative Chinese market.

“With bright future expectations in mind, STO plans to re-engage and recapture the Chinese market through a step-by-step process,” said Jin-Hyeok Park, director of the Seoul Convention Bureau, a division of STO.

“This year we operated on a market diversification strategy, with the purpose to reach all kinds of existing markets. Next year, we’ll keep exercising this strategy, with a special interest in the Chinese market," he said. "In November we hosted a Chinese buyer tour, and are slowly trying to bring business back to its normal state through these means.”

And with bilateral relations between China and South Korea on the mend, the future does indeed look bright. In October, Seoul and Beijing announced an agreement to move beyond the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) dispute and put mutual relations back on track. And last month, at the APEC Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced their intention to “swiftly restore exchange and cooperation in all areas to a normal track.”

Seoul's cultural attractions continue to win business... Deoksugung Palace

Park said that despite a 24 per cent decrease in tourism this year (largely from China), the association market continues to thrive.  

“Even though we lost a number of tourists this year, what’s especially noteworthy is that we’ve won 20 per cent more bids in the association meeting market,” Park said.

Cementing this ‘business as usual’ approach, in November Seoul hosted a mega international composites event, JEC Asia, for the first time. And after nine years in Singapore, JEC Asia came to Seoul with record attendance. “Seoul brought 30 per cent more participants. That's a record-breaking 6,271 visitors, compared to last year’s session in Singapore,” Park said. 

Following the three-day event at COEX, JEC group president and CEO, Frédérique MUTEL, stated: “Based on the outcomes of this session, already decided to double the surface of the event on one unique floor to be able to accommodate more exhibitors and innovative parts in 2018.”

Business as usual... JEC Asia came to Seoul in 2017 with record attendance

Weathering the nuclear storm

Nevertheless, rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump has magnified tensions with North Korea following repeated nuclear missile tests this year. And as a result, safety and security concerns have flared among international meeting planners, particularly those from the U.S.

In fact at this year’s IMEX America tradeshow, held in Las Vegas in October, Park said STO saw a significant drop in business appointments, as many American buyers were preoccupied with safety concerns and media hype surrounding North Korea.

In an effort to tackle this, STO teamed up with convention bureaus from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to host an exclusive networking event for American and European buyers during IMEX.

“This is the first time the four major MICE bureaus conducted a joint marketing event to influence the MICE industry in the U.S.,” Park said. “The joint collaboration will create awareness and spark interest in Asian MICE destinations.”

Countdown is on for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games

Gearing up for PyeongChang Games

STO also plans to leverage international attention from the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Games to draw more international MICE groups to Seoul.

“We are currently working on joint campaigns with other regions such as GyeonGgi Province and Gangwon Province on a diverse range of events,” Park explained.

As well as joint-marketing initiatives, STO recently launched a new Plus Seoul support programme for event and meeting planners, as well as a limited edition Discover Seoul Pass, which allows travellers to visit tourist attractions and enjoy discount benefits for both Seoul and PyeongChang.

“We have high hopes for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics," Park said. "The Games will show the world that South Korea, as a whole, is capable of hosting and managing large-scale events to the highest standards, with no need to worry for safety."

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