Looking for romance? How Claire is keeping NI couples ahead in the dating game
A former bank manager turned matchmaker from Co Tyrone says she can help you find love this year. Here, Stephanie Bell talks to Claire Hughes about her agency which offers a bespoke approach to dating
If you are feeling lonely after the new year celebrations and dread the thought of spending another 12 months on your own then one of Northern Ireland's most successful matchmakers could help make 2018 the year you meet the man or woman of your dreams.
New research published in December shows that the health impact of loneliness - both physical and mental - can be devastating.
Loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse for us than obesity. Chronic loneliness is cutting lives short and the problem is growing.
The new year is a time when people feel it more acutely, so for many it's the perfect time to vow to make a change.
Within two years of launching her matchmaking service, Soiree Society, Claire Hughes has become one of the UK's top five matchmakers and Northern Ireland's most successful.
Claire says that January and February see a huge spike in her business as people decide to fill the void in their lives.
"People get fed up of going home alone to dark houses at this time of the year and many feel they don't want to have another year on their own," she says.
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"People also tell us they dread New Year's Eve because, even if they are surrounded by family and friends, they find that with all the merriment and while they are happy for everyone else, they are missing someone.
"Last January and February, our inquiries went through the roof and that was largely because people didn't want to be alone for another 12 months."
In the short time the company has been operating, it has been recognised as among the best in the business in the UK.
Last year, it won the Best Upcoming Matchmaking Agency at the UK Dating Awards in London and at this year's event, was short-listed for the Best Matchmaking Agency of the Year Award against companies in Europe.
Claire (58), a former bank manager from Castlecaulfield, launched her service in 2015 at a time when people were becoming disillusioned with online dating.
Her approach is different. She treats finding a life partner like a recruitment agency. Expect a discreet, personal service, where you go armed with your CV and wish-list for finding your ideal mate.
Claire interviews you and based, on what you tell her, she draws on a database of possible matches to try and pair you with the ideal man or woman.
The matchmaker herself is happily married to Derek (62), a paramedic, and they have two children - Andrea (33), a chartered accountant, and Paul (30), a musician who plays with the McPeake band and his own band Top Floor.
Before taking on the role of matchmaker, 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 and was something which happened by chance.
"I had a 35-year-old friend whose five-year relationship had ended abruptly," Claire says.
"She is a good looking girl with a great career and was finding it hard to meet someone new and I just 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 was 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.
"There is also a real stigma about dating in Northern Ireland. People felt that going to singles events made them look desperate. Women tend to go out in groups and this is something men find intimidating.
"Men, in particular, wanted something more private and confidential because of the stigma."
Since launching in April 2015, Claire has made hundreds of matches and has 35 couples currently in relationships which have lasted more than a year.
While most of her clients are aged over 50, she has seen a spike in demand recently from younger people aged from 25 to 45 and also in the over-65 age group.
She says young men, in particular, who want to find a life partner are struggling and turning to the agency for help.
Claire has an over abundance of women on her books, with men much more reluctant - so she says men are 'paired up' almost straight away - and she wants to encourage more to get in touch as women are literally just waiting to be matched.
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 a recruitment company does to find the perfect candidate for a job vacancy".
There are three different types of membership at her agency, ranging from Pool membership, which is the cheapest at £100. Claire compares it to putting your CV into a recruitment firm to say you are available for a job if the right one comes up.
The next level is Gold membership, which guarantees four introductions and costs £795.
Much like a recruitment firm, the company will sift through the applicants to help find your ideal match.
Meanwhile, a new band is the bespoke membership package which costs £195 a year to be on the company's database and offers the option of paying £150 for an introduction when you want.
Claire adds: "This new option allows people to budget better for it and has been very successful, as it allows people to dip their toe in the water."
And what differentiates the service from online dating is that every person is authenticated by the company.
With Soiree, you have the reassurance of knowing each potential match's photograph is up to date, their age is correct and also with their profile, there will be a view of that person written by Soiree.
"It's not that different from being introduced to someone by a friend as we interview our members and get a feel for what they want," Claire says.
"Sometimes that is really instinctive and we know immediately on meeting someone that we already have the person who is perfect for them.
"Even Prince Harry and Megan were introduced by a mutual friend and so it is not that unusual."
Claire is very aware of the recent studies on loneliness and this year hopes to add a new dimension to her service by going into local businesses to help people achieve a better work-life balance.
It is not just the social benefits we gain from seeking a partner, but it is, in fact, good for our health.
According to the NHS, a happy relationship can help fend off angina and stomach ulcers - especially if you're a man.
One study of 10,000 men found those who felt "loved and supported" by their spouse or partner had a reduced risk angina.
Claire says: "The myth is that loneliness is typically associated with older people, but it also affects people who are surrounded by others and connected socially.
"I hope to go into local firms this year to work with them on the wellness of their staff. It is not from a dating point of view, but it's about caring.
"People work very hard and often their work-life balance isn't great and those who aren't in a relationship are known to not eat as well or exercise as much.
"People in a relationship tend to have healthier lifestyles and can be healthier, both physically and mentally."
Claire had the chance last year to meet Dame Esther Rantzen, who has championed loneliness among older people through her Silverline service, which she set up in 2013.
Also the founder of ChildLine, Esther has famously spoken about her own loneliness after the death of her husband, Desmond Wilcox, in 2000. It's also well publicised that she went on a blind date in the hope of meeting a new partner on TV's First Dates show.
Claire adds: "I met Esther at a Women in Business NSPCC ChildLine lunch and actually had a great chat with her when we met in the ladies toilet.
"She spoke at the conference about loneliness and how it does not respect gender or age and having wealth made no difference.
"She also spoke about the dreadful loneliness she experienced after the death of her husband and said it was a myth that loneliness is typically associated with being alone.
"She was aware that it can affect people who are surrounded by others and who are well connected socially, as in her own case.
"Esther asked me about my matchmaking business, which she thought was a brilliant idea, as she understood that loneliness is often about loss and the void it creates in your life and how difficult it can be to meet a partner."
For more details, visit www.soiree societyni.co.uk