- Business travelers should factor in plenty of buffer time for getting to meetings in Seoul
- Addresses and directions can be tricky
- Be prepared to drink and bow
For the third straight year, Seoul has ranked fifth in the world for number of international conferences hosted.
Its airport is the busiest in Asia.
Hotels are bursting to capacity.
An increasing number of business travelers is arriving each month to South Korea's capital, many not knowing what to expect.
Despite the cutting-edge technology the city is known for these days, there remain challenges for a first-timer in Seoul.
1. Traveling from the airport/around the city takes lots of time
Seoul is vast -- far greater than many expect.
As the largest proper city in the developed world, it's approximately 10 times the size of Manhattan, and much more crowded.
What this means for the time-sensitive business traveler is that a lot of buffer time should be factored in -- about 30 minutes, to be safe -- for getting to and from meetings, especially if they involve crossing the Han River.
From Incheon International Airport, the express train (₩ 8,000 or $7) runs every 30 minutes and will drop you off at Seoul Station, north of the river, near the Myeongdong business hub. Not a lot of travelers seem to know about this for some reason, and trains are usually quite empty.
Airport limousine buses (₩ 10,000-₩15,000 or $9-$14) are another convenient way to get to most any destination from the airport.
Staffers at the airport's bus counter are helpful if you tell them where you need to go.
Cabs cost around ₩50,000 or $48 to get into the heart of Gangnam (south of the river) or Gangbuk (north of the river).
During morning and evening rush hours, it's best to take the train.
2. The language barrier can throw you
The language barrier is particularly frustrating when it comes to addresses and directions.
Unlike the United States (or most other countries), Korea historically numbered buildings based on the date they were built in each district, not by location.
This means buildings next to each other can have completely different address numbers. (An initiative to change addresses is ongoing.)
The best way to get around is to have the address written or printed out in Korean to show to taxi drivers who can then input the address in their GPS system.
Stay strong while they grumble, and insist they put it in.
When completely lost, call +82 2 120, the city's help center, which has various language assistance options including English, Japanese and Chinese.
3. Hotel bookings should be based on location
Due to transit times (up to 90 minutes to two hours to cross the city during rush hour) it's best to choose your hotel based on your meeting locations.
Best hotels, by business hub:
Samseong (near COEX convention center): Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas, InterContinental Seoul COEX, Park Hyatt, Oakwood Premier Coex Center
Best hotels if you're flexible with location:
4. Bring business cards. As in, a whole box
In Korea, the standard business-related introduction involves reverently receiving and returning a business card, bowing and shaking hands, somehow all at the same time.
When the exchange is done over a meal, it's common to lay out the business cards of everyone at the table on the table in front of you so that you can remember everyone's name and position as you talk to them.
"That's one of the things that people wish they had known before coming here -- how quickly they're going to run out of business cards," says Seoul Convention Bureau vice president Maureen O'Crowley.
5. Wear nice socks at all times
It's not just a matter of style -- it's protection against embarrassment.
Many traditional Korean and Japanese restaurants (popular for business lunches and dinners) require patrons to leave shoes at the door.
Few local humiliations match having a toe sticking out of an old, dirty sock in the midst of serious business talk.
6. Be prepared to drink and bow
"Showing you can drink a lot, hold your alcohol, and still talk intelligently about a subject is important to showing that you are a mature, working business person that's worthy of trust," says John Li, an investment banker from Hong Kong who travels to Seoul once a month for work.
"Pay attention and you'll catch on quickly about the ritualism in business drinking. Also, there's a lot of only-Koreans-allowed entertaining that happens afterward."
It's considered rude to let someone pour his or her own drink. After toasting, it's considered polite for younger people at the table to turn their heads to the side when they drink.
For more tips on business drinking in Seoul, consult the business traveler's guide to surviving a Korean drinking session.
7. Layovers or delays = shopping
Incheon International Airport has been voted best airport in the world many times ... for good reason.
Apart from the shiny interior and quirky venues such as an ice skating rink, driving range and movie theater, the intense face-off between its two main duty free retailers, Lotte and Shilla, means big discounts for shoppers. (Our recommended souvenirs include Korean cosmetics -- for women and men.)
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