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February 2011Conference+Meetings World31South Korea is beginning to apply its work ethic to expanding its meetings industry. Although a backdropof tension with the North is not helping to sell the destination. Mike Trudeaureports.Upagainst itLate last year, conference industryprofessionals gathered in Seoul for theannual Korea MICE Expo and co-located Seoul MICE Forum, taking placeat the Coex conference venue.On the opening day of the event, NorthKorea responded to joint military exercisesby the South and the US by shelling thesmall island of Yeonpyeong. The violencekilled two marines and at least two civilians,and put the peninsula directly into theinternational spotlight.International visitors to the Forum in Seoulmight never have guessed. Everything wenton smoothly, as planned. The only deviationfrom the programme was when SamuelKoo, President and CEO of the SeoulTourism Corporation, called for a moment ofsilence during his opening speech out ofrespect for the dead. If not for this, then anyvisitor with no access to the internet couldhave wined, dined, networked, and beendriven back to their cosy hotels without anyidea of what was going down.Visitors would surely want to know if theirhosts were about to go to war. However, ittakes professional stoicism to stick to arigorous schedule at a time when peoplewould be forgiven for thinking more abouttheir families than the job at hand. Thisattitude to finishing the task at hand despiteextenuating circumstances is exemplary ofthe work ethic which has brought SouthKorea forward so quickly in the last fewdecades.However, the same cultural importanceplaced on doing one's duty can also impedethe growth of the events industry. Accordingto Martin Sirk, CEO of the InternationalCongress and Convention Association(ICCA) and who spoke at the MICE Forumin Seoul, some people in client-facingpositions can be reluctant to make decisionsfor themselves for fear of undermining theirsuperiors. The result is that every decisionhas to be channelled back up through theranks and then sent back down, leading tolosses of adaptability and responsiveness,both crucial for hosting live events.The G20 summit held late last year inSouth Korea, helped to boost the country'sprofile as an international eventsdestination, and spotlighted Seoul as a new,high-tech international events destination. The city's offer is a good one: it has plentyof venue space, good transport links toIncheon airport, and has over the last 10years poured a lot of money intorejuvenating central areas. Traffic is difficulthowever, and pollution can be a problem.Also, there are a lack of sufficient qualityhotel rooms to accommodate largenumbers of up-market professional visitors.Despite the wealth of venue space, highbusiness levels and modern technology, ashortage of trained professionals faces thematuring Korean MICE sector. According toKoo, low starting salaries make it difficult tobring qualified new graduates into themeetings and event sector. "All the regional, local and nationaltourism organisations are looking for trainedpeople," he said, "but at the same time thesalary level isn't high enough, so it is difficultto attract people to the industry." Speaking at the Forum, MeetingProfessionals International's (MPI) ChiefDevelopment Officer, Didier Scaillet, said anundefined career path was alsodiscouraging young Koreans fromcommitting themselves wholeheartedly tothe industry.Korea, like any country, faces challenges.However, organisers underestimate the smallpeninsula at their peril. When the countrybrings its rigorous work ethic to bear on theevents industry, it will leap forward with thesame speed as it has in other fields.COUNTRY PROFILECoex put on a brave face despite outside political tensionsFactboxKorea's top venues by gross conferencespaceCoex, Seoul(11,536sqm)ICC Jeju, Jeju Island(8,065sqm)Exco, Daegu(7,579sqm)Kintex, Gyeonggi-do(6,259sqm)DCC, Daejon(5,161sqm)Bexco, Busan(8,860sqm)Ceco, Gyeongsangnam-do(4,437sqm)Songdo Convensia, Incheon(4,020sqm)KDJ Centre, Gwangju(2,308sqm)AT Centre, Seoul(1,074sqm)SETEC, Seoul(839sqm)