The sweet smell of incense wafted through the air, along with rhythmic chanting and drumming, creating a mood of serenity at Seoul's Bongeunsa Temple, a Buddhist house of worship built in the year 794. Directly across the street, conventiongoers gathered at the high-tech Coex Convention & Exhibition Center for Blockchain Seoul 2018, where they learned about the intricacies of blockchain technology. During their lunch break, the group congregated in the attached COEX Mall, one of the largest underground shopping centers in Asia, many attendees perusing the goods in the two-story Starfield Library, packed with nearly 50,000 books and magazines.
Here in Seoul, thousand-year-old rituals are still being performed steps away from sessions describing novel technologies few have yet heard of. Such juxtapositions enchant in this city that has successfully modernized without giving up its heritage. Its residents -- kind, efficient and service-oriented -- take pride in this fact.
Not only is Seoul a global metropolis and major economic hub driving cultural innovation in Asia, but it's a meetings powerhouse. According to the Union of International Associations, this was the third-most-popular city for international meetings last year. The UIA report states that Seoul hosted 639 meetings in 2017, behind only Singapore, which hosted 802, and Brussels, with 757.
As a world leader in technology, Korea boasts some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world, both wired and wireless. Seoul's city-wide WiFi coverage allows connectivity everywhere. The city is also the center of Asian pop culture and has propelled brands like Samsung and Hyundai around the world.
Natural attractions such as the Hangang River, flowing through the center of the city, or the majestic mountains in the distance, contrast with glittering skyscrapers such as the 123-story Lotte World Tower -- Korea's tallest building, boasting the world's highest glass-bottom observation deck.
Honors for the world's highest hotel ballroom go to the ultra-stylish Signiel Seoul, also within Lotte World Tower, on floors 76 through 101. Along with 235 spacious guest rooms, there is ample meeting and event space on the 76th floor with panoramic views.
An indoor swimming pool, saunas, whirlpools, fitness studio and Korea's first exclusive Evian Spa are other features. Bicena, a Michelin-starred Korean restaurant, serves sophisticated fare on handcrafted dishes.
Just as Lotte World Tower, a futuristic-looking building soars into the sky, another building of the same style sprawls out in shiny metal waves: Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The spaceship-like structure features two exhibition halls, two convention halls and a conference hall.
No visit to Seoul is complete without visiting Changdeokgung Palace, a 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in harmony with nature, Changdeokgung was constructed in 1405 as a secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
It's not uncommon to see visitors dressed in hanbok, traditional Korean attire, as they stroll through Changdeokgung and other historic sites in the city.
Another attraction for groups is Oil Tank Culture Park. Once a high-security oil storage area, five massive storage tanks have been transformed into cultural space that work well for meeting groups interested in out-of-the-ordinary gatherings. For instance, T1 is now a performance and exhibition hall with a soaring glass ceiling while T2 has been cut in half to be used as a stage. T4's steel outer walls and supporting pipe columns remain just as they did when it was filled with tons of oil and is ideal for indoor exhibitions and performances. Directly across the street from this one-of-a-kind park is Seoul World Cup Stadium.
A renaissance is taking place in Seoul's Seongsu-dong area, which has become one of the city's trendiest spots. The area's old industrial buildings, once bustling with more than 900 businesses related to shoemaking, are now cafes, pubs and meeting spaces. Baesan, originally a rice mill that turned into a warehouse, is now an industrial-style event space with exposed brick and beams and eye-catching art installations.
Offering 11,000 square feet divided into three areas, Samsung used the venue to launch its Galaxy Note 9. "Corporations want to step out of conventional venues," explained the owner. "This was a very dilapidated neighborhood, famous for making shoes. Young artists started coming here as those businesses moved because of the proliferation of inexpensive space."
A more conventional meeting venue, Coex, is Seoul's largest convention center. It opened in 1979 as the first convention and exhibition center in Korea with the aim of providing a venue for global trade and cultural exchange. The 388,000-square-foot center includes four dividable exhibition halls and 55 meeting rooms. The World Trade Center Seoul, which houses Coex, is also home to one of Asia's largest underground shopping centers. With a theater, three five-star hotels with 1,453 guest rooms, a casino, 181 different food-and-beverage outlets, shopping at 1,163 stores, an aquarium with 40,000 underwater creatures, and a city airport terminal where groups can check-in, the Coex MICE cluster has the necessary infrastructure to service international meetings and exhibitions. The convention center is silver certified by EarthCheck, a global sustainability benchmarking system.
In November 2010, Coex hosted the world's 20 most powerful leaders during the G20 Seoul Summit. It again hosted the leaders of 53 countries during the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in 2012.
Public parks of all types and sizes are scattered throughout the city. One of the newest is Seoullo 7017, named after a Seoul Station overpass that was built in the 1970s, that today is a pedestrian promenade with more than 24,000 indigenous plants in a variety of colors, a foot bath and trampolines for the young. Reminiscent of New York's High Line Park, eateries, performance spaces, and a tourist information center dot the walkway.
Another area in Seoul perfect for a stroll is Cheonggyecheon Stream. Set 15 feet below street level, serene waterfalls, nearly two dozen overhead bridges, art installations, and street performers abound, a green oasis in the midst of the city.
It's hard to believe that the original stream was paved over in the late 1950s.
In hotel news, JW Marriott Seoul, closed through Aug. 19, has been transformed into an ultra-chic place to stay. The property offers 379 guest rooms including two multilevel penthouses and 32 suites on floors 12 to 33, with panoramic views of Namsan Mountain, the Han River and the city.
The transformation included the hotel's restaurants, cafés and bars, which now feature haute cuisine prepared by international chefs, wine directors, sommeliers, tea masters and global food-and-beverage consultants. Among these is Margaux Grill, with an impressive list of 1,400 fine wines; as well as Tamayura, an authentic Japanese restaurant with a Western-style teppanyaki counter and authentic tea bar — as well as MOBO Bar, with exclusive wines and cocktails crafted by top mixologists with freshly picked local Korean ingredients.
Spanning three floors, JW Marriott Seoul's new fitness club includes state-of-the- art exercise equipment, an 85-meter jogging track, indoor golf zone, squash court, basketball court, swimming pool, scuba diving pool, Jacuzzi, cabanas and sauna. Special areas are designated for those interested in wellbeing practices including Ayurvedic remedies, meditation and healing.
JW Marriott Seoul has more than 15,715 square feet of meeting space that can accommodate up to 1,000 people and an 8,245-square-foot grand ballroom that incorporates two levels and features glass walls overlooking the mountains of Seoul.
Another new hotel in the city is the Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun, adjacent to Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Dongdaemun Market. There are 331 guest rooms and 192 residences, a rooftop bar and outdoor pool, and a ballroom that can accommodate up to 280.
A place of perpetual change, plans are underway to expand the MICE cluster at Coex into Jamsil. It will bring 720,000 square meters that will include a new convention center, attractions, hotels, shops, and entertainment venues by 2030. But with so much development happening, standing in the lobby of the luxe InterContinental Seoul COEX, the faint ringing of a dharma bell can still be heard emanating from the Buddhist temple across the street. It's a bell that has been rung for thousands of years, a reminder that however the city modernizes, its heritage won't be forgotten.