SINGAPORE: It was about four years ago when Mr John Gan* first thought about settling down after seeing his close friends getting hitched and starting their own families.
But as thoughts of leaving the singles club emerged, the 33-year-old nurse realised that a dwindling social circle stood in his way. Having spent “little time and effort on dating in the past”, the Singaporean decided it was time to change things.
Taking on a proactive approach to make new friends, Mr Gan signed up with dating agencies and also gave free dating apps a go. But the endless swiping of profiles and little opportunities for real-life interaction on the latter proved to be an underwhelming experience and Mr Gan opted to “go aggressive” on speed-dating events organised by local matchmaking agencies.
“I was quite nervous before my first speed-dating event so I went to research what these events are like and read the book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ to prepare myself,” he recalled. “After going a few more times, I slowly got the hang of it. It can be tiring and disappointing if you don’t meet someone … but if you don’t try, you will never succeed.”
Mr Gan is not alone. While dating apps have become an increasingly attractive platform to seek love and friendship, there are still plenty of singles in Singapore who prefer joining a dating agency or enlisting the help of a professional matchmaker.
According to a spokesperson from the Social Development Network (SDN), there has been “continued need and demand for offline dating platforms” even as the growing variety of dating apps and online platforms provide a convenient avenue for tech-savvy and busy singles to connect.
Last year, the number of events organised by the 13 dating agencies accredited by SDN rose 23 per cent to 642, compared to 524 events in 2015. Correspondingly, the event participation rate in 2016 increased by 21 per cent to 15,393 participants from a year ago.
According to local agencies that Channel NewsAsia spoke to, this demand indicates that while mobile-based apps such as Tinder have gained a tremendous following among the younger generation, they have had limited success in courting singles above 30 who tend to prefer offline dating.
At GaiGai - the matchmaking arm of homegrown dating app Paktor that offers both event-based and one-on-one private dates - the mean age of a member is between 30 and 31, said co-founder Alex Tam. The average Paktor user is 25 years old and below.
In fact, the offline arm was set up two years ago to meet user demands that Paktor - despite its rising popularity - was struggling to meet.
“We noticed there were some Paktor users who have not been very successful. There are those who can’t seem to find a match or convert matches into dates, and there are some who are too busy to swipe through profiles … so we thought maybe we could curate this process for these groups of people and turn it into actual dates,” said Mr Tam.
GaiGai, which means “going out” in Cantonese, now has a member base of 12,000 people, making it one of the biggest dating agencies locally.
(L to R) Ms Anisa Hassan, managing director of It's Just Lunch Asia,; Mr Alex Tam, co-founder of GaiGai; Ms Michelle Goh, founder of CompleteMe. (Photo: Tang See Kit)
Ms Michelle Goh, founder of events-based agency CompleteMe, described older singles as being more ready to commit and settle down. Hence dating events, which allow for face-to-face interaction, have been viewed as a better way for singles to find like-minded individuals.
“Given that they have to put in the effort to find an event to attend, register, make payment and then dress up for the occasion, these are people who tend to be genuinely looking for someone, rather than having a ‘see see, look look’ attitude,” said Ms Goh, who added that the number of active participants for CompleteMe’s 150 events annually has “increased steadily to almost 3,000”.
Over at It’s Just Lunch Asia, it is the guarantee of privacy and a human touch in its matchmaking process that have ensured sustained brisk business. According to managing director Anisa Hassan, the agency now has an active member base of 5,000 people and attracts an average of 800 new customers a year.
Apart from singles, the agency also has divorced or widowed clients who are willing to take a second chance at love but remain hesitant about putting themselves out there. “There are more people who are divorced and are stepping forward. They are the ones who want a real person whom they can build a relationship with and are wary of going online,” Ms Hassan said.
The agency, first launched in Singapore 13 years ago and which matchmakes professionals over a meal, also has a concierge-like service that involves Ms Hassan “headhunting” beyond the company’s database for the perfect match. For this elite service, the women pay S$5,000 for five dates while the men have to fork out S$10,000 for 10 dates.
“This started in 2014 when some of my male clients approached me to help them date more exclusively. These are managing directors or CEOs who wanted me to go out and be their ears and eyes on the ground … this is a human-intensive process that dating apps cannot do. While apps are there to disrupt, dating still requires the personal touch. We may be low-tech but we are high-touch.”
A profiling session at dating agency It's Just Lunch. (Photo: Tang See Kit)
Some dating agencies have also taken on what they call an "activity-based approach" to event ideas - a move aimed at wooing singles who remain intimidated by formal dates with strangers and fun-loving 20-somethings.
“Every time we conduct an event, our main objective is to make it a casual platform for people to meet,” Mr Tam from GaiGai said. While it has held large-group matchmaking events, the agency prides itself on “out-of-the-box” date ideas such as baking or terrarium workshops, hawker food trails where participants follow a designated route on cars provided by Uber and weekend getaways.
“We want to shift away from formal speed-dating events - something that the younger folks don’t seem to like. Instead of coming in with the idea of finding a life partner, come to make friends,” Mr Tam added.
CompleteMe, which has made its name in organising speed-dating events for the past seven years, has also introduced board gaming, karaoke and most recently, volunteering sessions to its mix.
Such activities can serve as a much-needed distraction and help participants to “be less stressed out about having to impress one another”, Ms Goh said. Thus far, interest in these activity-based events has been strong, with participants mostly in their 20s and early 30s.
Ms Eileen Syn* has gone for several activity-based events over the past two years, with the most recent being a singles trip to Malaysia, and views them as more enjoyable than speed-dating events. The 30-year-old Singaporean first went on speed-dating when she was 21 and remembered the sit-down event as being “awkward”.
“I was definitely hesitant at first because you don’t know what to expect, but I thought I should be open-minded and just try. At least for these events, you get to meet people who most likely have the same interests or hobbies as you and if you don’t manage to meet anyone, you can still have fun,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
GaiGai's recent event at the S.E.A. Aquarium attracted nearly 200 singles. (Photo: GaiGai)
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But even so, Ms Syn admits to feeling “jaded” from the dating events and has recently signed up with mobile-based app Coffee Meets Bagel, where she has had a few dates with “more like-minded individuals”.
And with online dating platforms here to stay as an alternative, some dating agencies have sought to deal with the challenge of disruption head-on by rolling out their own apps. In the case of Lunch Actually, it has launched LunchClick and e-dating platform eSynchrony.
“When we first started the business, we knew that it wasn't going to be just lunch dating … Our vision from day one was very clear. We wanted to be the most effective dating service (and this) might mean different things for different people. And we also realised that it might change,” co-founder Violet Lim told 938Live’s “On The Record” in an interview last year.
“In the last 12 years, the Internet became a lot more pervasive and smartphones did too. We knew we had to move with the times, and we were and still are very okay to create products or services that might even compete with our own existing products … Businesses are being disrupted every single day. If you still want to be around, you need to constantly innovate and you have to constantly disrupt yourself,” she added.
But while some new ventures have taken off, others have been less of a success.
In 2015, homegrown matchmaking agency Society W launched its own dating app called Blindfold. The app, accredited by SDN, offers a free daily match curated based on a proprietary algorithm. Profile pictures on the app are also blurred to ensure anonymity.
While the free app managed to chalk up five-digit downloads within a year, its founder Wendy Tse decided to call it quits last September, citing high costs as one of the key reasons.
“The app was weighing on our cost benefit and it was taking up too much of my time away from my core business of matchmaking,” said the Singaporean who founded Society W in 2011. “We did get quite good traction but there was the realisation that apps require a lot of marketing dollars to take off. If I’m not going to go down the route of massive fundraising, then I should just focus on where my strength lies, which is matchmaking.”
But Ms Tse does not regret her venture into the app business, which was a “six-digit” investment. Describing it as a learning opportunity, she noted that while dating apps are also in the business of love, a matchmaking agency that ventures into online dating may not necessarily be having the best of both worlds.
“For an app to do well, you would want people to keep coming back but if you are interested in true matchmaking, you want people to pair up and not come back. So I don’t think the idea of doing matchmaking and building an app at the same time really gel together,” she explained.
For Mr Gan, speed-dating is now a thing of the past after he met the girl of his dreams at an event organised by CompleteMe two years ago. The woman is now his fiancee and the couple have plans to register their marriage later this year.
Looking back on his quest for romance, he said: “If I have to choose, I still prefer a dating agency over an app because you can attend events and you get to see your date in person … I may have liked my (relationship) to be natural like everyone else’s, but there’s nothing wrong with either method."
“I’ve been telling my colleagues who are single to give it a try. It’s all about individual preferences and if you can’t get fish in this pond, you go to another,” he added.
*The names of some dating agency members have been changed or abbreviated as they spoke to Channel NewsAsia on condition of anonymity.
Follow See Kit on Twitter @SeeKitCNA