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So you want to find love in 2017? This Tyrone dating guru has helped many people find their soulmates

By Stephanie Bell

After a high-flying career in banking, mum-of-two Claire Hughes set up matchmaking service Soiree Society and says that interest in her services is proving remarkable.

Happily married mum of two and former bank manager Claire Hughes may seem an unlikely Cupid but her uncanny matchmaking skills have just won her UK-wide recognition.

Claire's bespoke dating company Soiree Society recently scooped Best Upcoming Matchmaker in the UK at the annual European and UK Dating Awards 2016 in the company of TV hit show First Dates which also picked up a top gong.

Soiree Society was the only Northern Ireland entrant to be recognised at the glittering London ceremony which is dubbed the Oscars of the dating industry and attracts competition from companies all over the UK.

Claire, from Castlecaulfield, had no plans to become a matchmaker but felt compelled to give it a go after discovering how difficult it was for singletons to find new partners.

She found that people over 40 in particular - and especially men - were uncomfortable trying to meet new people in bars and were disillusioned by online dating websites.

Claire takes a fresh approach to helping people find their soulmates.

Initially she set up her business as an events company for unattached men and women but realising that people needed extra help she set up her matchmaking service in April 2015.

Claire's clients are typically over the age of 30 and she has had many successful matches since she launched her venture - a success rate that was recognised at the dating awards.

She says: "I am absolutely over the moon to win such a prestigious award within our industry. Northern Ireland is such a small place and when I started my business I had a few raised eyebrows as to why a happily married person would want to get involved in the dating industry.

"I soon realised there was a real stigma here associated with dating, mostly due to the perception that dating agencies were synonymous with one night stands, false profiles, people purporting to be younger or slimmer than they really were and married men pretending they were single.

"I couldn't get over how people were reluctant to like our Facebook page in case people would see them liking it and think they were looking for a relationship.

"So I set out to build an ethical, professional and reputable service to meet the needs of those discerning clients who desire a highly customised and discreet dating service.

"Over the past 18 months, I have uncovered that there is such a demand in Northern Ireland for people wanting a genuine loving relationship."

Claire (57) is married to Derek (61), a paramedic, and has two children Andrea (32), a chartered accountant, and Paul (29), a musician who plays with the McPeake band and his own band Top Floor.

Most of her career was spent in banking and before leaving she was in charge of four branches and specialised in business lending.

She left to start her own consultancy as a business mentor for small companies working through Dungannon Enterprise Centre. Setting up her own matchmaking agency was never a consideration.

"I had no notion of it at all and it happened quite by chance," she says.

"I had a 35-year-old friend whose five year relationship had ended abruptly. She is a good-looking girl with a great career and was finding it hard to meet someone new and I couldn't understand why.

"She said she was too old for bars and felt her job was too high profile for online dating and her friends were all in relationships and going out in couples.

"I kept hearing this over and over again with other people and found that men in particular had little confidence. I also have many professional people on my books - teachers, solicitors, doctors - who felt the dating scene is tacky.

"Everywhere I went I was meeting people telling me the same stories - that they had no one to go out with and nowhere to go to meet a new partner.

"The more I came across it the more I realised there was an absolute demand for a new type of service to help people to meet new partners."

Claire began to conduct research and also found that many people who had come through the difficulties of separation, divorce or bereavement were completely daunted and outside their comfort zones with the modern dating process.

Her approach is confidential and tailor-made to each client to find the person who suits them best.

She describes it as a "bit like the work a recruitment company does to find the perfect candidate for a job vacancy".

"The only difference is that in this case the employer is our full paying member who wants us to help them fill a vacancy in their social lives," she says. "We personally interview each full paying member on our books and only take on people who we truly believe we can match. They have the assurance that anyone we introduce them to has also been interviewed and authenticated.

"We also fully understand the challenges that single people may face as life takes them into a fresh situation, out of comfort zones and often with a bit of reluctance, and that is why we guide and advise our clients each step of the way.

"A lot of our clients are simply time-poor, juggling demanding careers and/or family commitments with the search for love and companionship.

"While no one can guarantee love and chemistry, what we aim to do is take the stress out of finding a new partner and to make it more of a positive experience as we endeavour to find our clients the perfect match.

"A lot of it is down to my intuition and I have had a lot of success. It is a good feeling to help people find happiness, their success is my success and I share in that happiness.

"At the same time I am not a magician and I can't promise love and chemistry, I can only facilitate the meeting between two like-minded people.

"I've had clients say that it just felt good to have a reason to get dressed up again and go out and meet someone new and one elderly gentleman who said he put aftershave on for the first time in years.

"It is particularly hard for some people on their own at this time of the year as they can feel really lonely over the Christmas and New Year period when they have no partner to share it with."

Claire meets all of her potential clients for coffee so that she can carry out her own screening process as well as get a feel for the type of person they are and the type of partner they would like to meet.

There are a number of membership options available. "Pool clients" sign up for £100 and have their details put on her database in the hope that they will match a "paying client".

Paying clients have a choice of Gold membership which costs £795 and guarantees four introductions while Platinum membership at £1,395, comes with eight introductions. There is also a Diamond membership package where the fee is negotiated on an individual basis, and this service involves "headhunting specifically to meet a client's personal requirements".

Claire has turned down people for membership for a variety of reasons and ultimately because she feels she won't be able to find them a match.

She also insists "it is not a numbers game" and to provide the quality of service she wants she will restrict numbers to a manageable size.

She says: "I started with about 30 dates a week but found that was too much so I decided to keep it down and it now averages about 20 to 25 couples a week.

"It is about the quality of the service rather than how many people I have on my books. In my first 18 months I had 370 matches and my longest couple are dating 18 months now and I have many more in relationships.

"It means a lot when you get a text which I did recently from a couple saying they were in Portugal on the beach having the best time they ever had or the one I got last Christmas from a divorcee who said it was her best Christmas ever."

Claire has discovered that men are more reluctant than women to come forward.

Having worked mostly with men on a one-to-one basis through her job as a business advisor in the bank, she understands more than most about why that might be and she urges lonely men to get in touch.

She says: "Men do find the dating scene a lot more difficult than women as they find it more difficult to talk about their feelings.

"Yet the men who come on my books are usually very quickly successfully matched as I have so many lovely, genuine women looking for a real relationship.

"I really would encourage more men to get in touch with me as I may already have the partner they are looking for."

Commenting on Claire's success at the awards, Caroline Brealey, head judge said: "I'm delighted that Claire's hard work and success has been recognised by the UK Dating Awards.

"Claire has worked tirelessly to create Soiree Society which has been hugely successful in bringing people together.

"There are few people who have a genuine knack for personal matchmaking and Claire is one them - she has an eye for a great match and the determination to make sure her clients leave her happy and in love."

Caroline concluded: "Claire is flying the flag for Northern Ireland in the dating industry and long may it continue."

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