SEOUL – Frederic Boulin knows his Hyatts. A graduate of Glion Hotel School in Switzerland, the well-kempt General Manager is effervescent when recalling tales of his times at the luxury hotel’s properties in Shanghai, Sao Paolo, La Manga, and Cairo. Not to mention his stints at the Intercontinental in Buenos Aires, Phnom Penh, Guatemala, and Athens.
But perhaps never before has the globe-trotting hotelier been at the reigns of a city’s most prestigious and talked-about hotel at the same time as the city itself has become one of the most vibrant hotspots of international fashion, culture, and entertainment.
Situated in southern Seoul and overlooking the ultra-modern Teheran Boulevard – named in 1976 for the Mayor of the Iranian capital when the area had barely started development – the Park Hyatt is a pillar of Gangnam, renowned for its policy of trying to capture the district’s atmosphere inside the property, most notably via its floor-to-ceiling glass windows that cover its façade.
ARTINFO sat down with Boulin (FB) and Sales Director Jennifer Lee (JL) to talk about the area’s optimism, future, and the real style of Gangnam.
As a man of the world, what does Gangnam really mean to you?
FB: It’s the place to be. It’s always alive, business in the day, hectic at nighttime. It never sleeps, it’s 24 hours.
Why did Gangnam develop the way it did?
FB: It started 35 years ago when there was only one building in this entire area. Everything was on the other side of the city. It developed because of two things. Space was an issue, and there was a plan to put Seoul on the international map as a place to do business. COEX Mall was a great vision, to build such a large center for business.
So while the banking area is still in the north, all the largest businesses have been moved into this area, and there is still a lot of space where they will continue putting large buildings up. But also we will see a lot of fine apartments here as they destroy some buildings [for] a lot more people to live here.
Why is Gangnam so appealing to the new generation in Korea?
FB: It’s where you can find everything and especially because it’s now the center of culture and arts. In terms of restaurants and nightlife, these are now a lot much more developed.
Gangnam is very large, it’s nearly half of a city now. So you have a lot of different areas, Apgujeong focused on luxury shopping, Sinsa-dong with a lot of independent restaurants, if you want you can find a street where you can find only Italian furniture for half-a-mile. But I think what you see from right here [in the Lobby Lounge] is what people think of first, the new business district.
Do you mean that the image of Gangnam that the world has been exposed to, may not be entirely accurate?
JL: From a native Korean perspective, the real meaning is different from the lyrics of Psy’s song. Gangnam style comes from a time when all the rich people came down to buy real estate and as their real estate value went up, more investment in luxury and art have moved here. Because these people became parents and wanted their children to have the best education in the world, they sent them out so that they came back with an upfront style and demeanor, different from locals.
From their appearance these people have a desire for new luxury that came from more developed countries and that’s why people think Gangnam style [refers to] people who are neat, rich, light-skinned, and with luxury clothing and accessories.
The girls want to date these Gangnam men, so in Psy’s video, he kept saying he has “Gangnam Style” so that he can date the girl. But the phrase has been around a long time and it’s actually a compliment. It’s opposite is Gangbuk [northern Seoul] style – poor looking.
The negative point of this is that Gangnam style is a fantasy, not realistic, and too expensive.
I think it’s already changing with the generation that’s been here a while, they don't need to express themselves in their 30s to 50s in the way the youngest do. So they are elegant and educated but no longer looking to appear white and showing brands all the time. They are learning to be more reserved as in other countries.
If Gangnam’s theme is based on the desire for international-style luxury, what makes it distinctly Korean?
FB: It has a mix of people from all around Korea unlike nowhere else. Yet it’s more modern, more organized, more convenient, and you have the best goods. At the end of the day, it's a better life for Koreans.
JL: For the first several years Gangnam had a combination of trends from developed countries, but as time went by people looked back into Korean history again. They became tired of seeing new Western restaurants, so if you go to Garosugil [in Sinsa-dong], they are trying to combine modernism with Korean food.
The people may look a bit arrogant, with too much style, but they are very optimistic and confident in creating thoughts and products. Gangnam is where education is extremely competitive, even between friends, [and therefore] they develop faster.
Doesn’t Gangnam have a reputation for competitiveness in looks as well as education?
FB: There are more than 150 plastic surgery clinics here now. In terms of proficiency, costs, efficiency, there are a lot of people coming from all over the world for checkups or operations, but also cancer treatment. I think more will come for medical, dental, plastic surgery, and then heart surgery.
JL: If one person becomes pretty through plastic surgery, all their friends want to compete. K-pop stars all get it done, and Korean people are into getting thinner. Just go to Garosugil, and then go to northern Seoul and you will see a huge difference in the way people look. Here they look very similar with square-foreheads, stocked mouths by pulling the teeth and bones forward to look thinner, more like Western-style faces.
The [botox] injections to achieve these looks, everybody does it now and they will tell you openly. Before they would probably hide it, but it's a normal thing to do now. I believe in ten years it will change to more Asian-style faces.
What kind of people are coming to Gangnam to stay in the Park Hyatt now?
FB: Really they are from all over the world, it’s amazing to see. 34% are Americans, 35% from Asia. Koreans and Japanese make up the top 3. Koreans come on the weekend, to propose here, or for honeymoons. Japanese businessmen come for leisure with their family. Hong Kong and Singapore are each 8%. Mainland China is growing.
Basically for 5-star plus, we are the only one in the city. [Hotel chains] are looking at Seoul and the city needs more 5-star hotels, but the investments to build a hotel, finding the right space, it’s extremely difficult, so that’s the major challenge.
JL: I’ve been here only four-and-a-half years. When I first came, we were asked why the Park Hyatt was not located in the center of the city, by City Hall, because back then people were asking for Insa-dong and [Gyeongbok] Palace.
We forecast that all the luxury brands and IT companies will be around here, and as years went by, people changed from asking about traditional locations, to about new architecture. From World Cup events to the G20, the Nuclear Summit to Psy, now it’s all here.