”And we would feel as excited and ecstatic and proud as any guests at those weddings that have happened after a match we were responsible for. It is such a buzz being able to bring people together and see love blossom. There is nothing like it,” says Claire.
As with everything else, dating ground to a halt when the pandemic decimated the possibilities of ordinary interaction and Soiree was forced to think outside the box.
”Clients were telling us that they were starved of social interaction and wanted opportunities to connect with others whereby a date would be a bonus but it was not the priority.
”I think at the start of lockdown dating was not a priority for people. There were financial worries, home schooling, changes in work patterns, new routines and hobbies, different stresses.
”But as time went on I think people started to feel very lonely. For many of our clients lockdown has given them perhaps too much time to consider the absence of a significant other in their life and with everyone working from home that sense of isolation has been enhanced.
”So we started with a Zoom singles quiz and people just loved it and were so enthusiastic and delighted to chat to others.
”The quizzes were open to people who weren’t members but we are hoping they might join up and date with us when normality resumes.”
Then, as part of its Love after Lockdown package, as well as offering webinars on self-image, style advice and relationship coaching, the company decided to get with the Zoom approach to love and launched their virtual ‘First Dates’; socially distanced dates are also happening for those happy to risk meeting in a forest park or along a sea shore to maybe enjoy a takeaway bag of chips and see if connection blossoms.
“You know, a lot of the feedback we’re getting is that people actually prefer this form of dating,” says Claire. “It’s more convenient, less hassle, less expensive, less nerve-wracking and I think that even after lockdown the virtual date will remain part of the service we offer clients. Can you fall in love via Zoom? Well, I would say why not?”
Soiree’s USP has always been providing a very confidential and personal, uniquely tailored service; Claire and Rhoda conduct detailed interviews with clients to establish as much about them and what they are looking for as possible; it is akin to personality profiling as well as looking at the values that matter most to an individual. There is no use of complex algorithms, the approach is very manual, considered, a well-thought through and careful decision making process of who might fit together best.
Claire, who has been married for 41 years and is therefore a total stranger to the dating scene, decided to start the society after single friends explained to her the real difficulties they encountered in trying to meet a nice guy. Young and attractive, they still felt they faced insurmountable hurdles in finding a date.
“They would tell me it was so difficult, that you can’t just walk into a bar anymore, that it’s really hard to start conversations with people when you’re out with friends, and many of them don’t have a lot of time to wait around searching for Mr Right in unexpected places.
“So I thought I would give this a go and quickly built up a substantial data base of Northern Ireland singles.
“I think one of our attractions is that we try to keep things classy and privacy and confidentiality are absolutely vital to what we do.”
Claire choose ‘Soiree’, the French for an evening’s entertainment or get together, casting off the tackiness you sometimes get with dating sites; this is certainly a cut above the swipe and match apps like Tinder where couples get together wholly on superficial judgements.
And the company logo is phoenix. symbolic of a new dawn, rebirth and dramatic transformation; phoenixes rise from the ashes to new life, much like you awake to a say, rejuvenated and happy world bursting with colour and possibility when you fall in love, with something by Crosby, Stills & Nash playing on loop in the background, birds chirruping in the trees and a notable desire to skip down the street even on your way to work of a Monday morning.
The award-winning company is the only accredited of its kind in Ulster and it is currently offering a Love After Lockdown package to help its members find their ultimate matches, recruiting a leading tailor, male grooming expert, image consultant and life coaches to ensure post-isolation dates go smoothly.
Online relationship advice, detailed interviews with clients to understand how they envisage Mr or Mrs Right, and a new embrace of virtual technologies that look set to permanently change the dating landscape, there are nonetheless certain things that will never change.
“There are always certain recurrent criteria,” Claire laughs. “Women simply will not give up on the time-honoured tall, dark and handsome formula.
“Most women, no matter how nice the guy, simply will not date a guy who is smaller than them and that is the case however they meet, virtually or in person, although I suppose with Zoom if people are sitting down there might be a slightly longer window where they are engaged with what the man is saying before they dismiss him on the basis of height alone! And have you ever considered how small men in Northern Ireland are? The average height is five foot eight. And we have a lot of tall girls. It is very hard.”?Much like the First Dates set up on the popular Channel 4 reality TV show where maitre d’ Fred Sirieix introduces couples before they sit down to dinner, Soiree Society have Paul Clarke, a male relationship advisor, as their matchmaker who sets up the Zoom call, does his background research on the duo and kicks off the date with a few ice-breaker questions before disappearing and letting the couple see if they can sense any potential for that ever elusive prospect of love.
“I always tell a corny joke which rarely gets a laugh but it’s just to make people comfortable and then I leave them to it. I get a thrill introducing people who might fall in love,” says Paul, 57, from Magherafelt, who actually found love himself after signing up with Soiree Society several years ago following his divorce.
Though bolstered by his three teenage children, great family and friends, he was ultimately very lonely and after three years of singledom had been on the verge of giving up on meeting someone. He said: “I had no one to go to the cinema with. I had no one to go to dinner with. I wasn’t able to go here, there or wherever. I took a deep breath and signed up to Soiree. And I met a lovely woman named Paula and we’ve been together since and it’s just been wonderful. I had thought I was destined to be on my own and joining Soiree Society just changed all that. Now I have someone I can spend the rest of my life with.”
As well as introducing Zoom datees Paul is a male relationship advisor whose role involves encouraging reluctant men to put themselves back out on the dating scene – which, for many, is a daunting move, full as it is with the risk of rejection, hurt and damage to a perhaps already sensitive self-esteem.
“Men are extremely prideful, fearful and odd. They don’t always socialise with ease in the ways that women do. A lot of guys are not coming forward because they think they should be able to meet someone themselves and often they have a better chance of winning the lottery because they aren’t putting themselves in situations where meeting someone would even be on the cards.
“I try to draw men out and encourage them to see that if they are lonely it is time to do something about that. A lot of people when they reach 50 think their lives are gone, it’s all over, and that simply isn’t true.
“My message is that the possibility of love is still there.
“The men I talk to will say ‘there is nobody out there for me, nobody would fit in with my life’. I stop them there and say that is not true. I try to get them to be positive. I tell them these feelings are very common and I reassure them that all of this is so confidential.
“I just have a great heart’s desire to see people who are on their own with somebody because it is not good for you to be alone, it is the greatest poverty, what do you have if you have nobody to share your experiences and achievements with?”
And Paul’s coaching of wary men is obviously having an impact as for the first time in five years the matchmaking service’s number of male applicants has outnumbered females with the ratio being 63 per cent male in June.
So clients of Soiree Society are continuing to zoom towards love despite the pandemic, an uplifting reality indeed since there are a lot of lonely hearts out there, with research showing that a whopping 50 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population are unattached, having never been married, separated, divorced or widowed.
That is a lot of adults missing out on hugs and intimacy, a lot of empty beds or broken hearts in need of repair.
“Quite a few of our Zoom dates have progressed to the third or fourth,” notes Claire with satisfaction. “So who knows? Is the first Zoom Soiree marriage on the horizon? It could well be.”
Ah, Zoom. The post-pandemic route to love. Face to face dating is just so 2019.
To sign up to Soiree Society and avail of their Love after Lockdown package which is available at various rates allowing you to go on your own virtual first date visit www.soireesocietyni.co.uk where you will be directed to fill out an application form.