Claire Hughes runs award-winning matchmaking business Soiree Society — and says despite the challenges of lockdown, people are still looking for love and she’s helped connect three long-term couples since the pandemic began.
“Back in March we thought this was all going to be very temporary,” laughs Claire. “We stopped matching on March 18 — but it didn’t take long for us to figure out we’d need to find an alternative way of working.”
In fact by early summer Soiree Society was running virtual dates for its clients, with the company’s male relationship adviser Paul Clarke introducing would-be couples online before leaving them to find out of the virtual sparks would fly.
“It’s a bit like the TV programme First Dates, and Paul is our Fred,” laughs Claire, from Castlecaulfield, Co Tyrone.
“We have their profiles, we suggest them to one another and set them up on a Zoom date. They’re met there by Paul who cracks a few jokes and breaks the ice, and then he leaves them to it.
“Already we’re starting to get some lovely feedback about how it’s worked — and as well as three couples still dating in real life as a result we’ve had people telling us they’ve actually preferred the virtual dates as an initial way to get to know one another.
“For anyone who might feel a bit nervous before a date, those nerves were much less noticeable. They could have a wee drink at home, there was much less expense without taxis and all the usual. They could get dressed up and feel good about themselves and really get talking to each other without any distractions.”
As well as virtual dates, Soiree Society has run online quizzes for its members to keep people in touch, and launched its Soiree Social in the autumn.
“We still have a lot of people who are hopeful of finding someone,” says former banker Claire. “But we’re in such unusual circumstances, people are focusing on other things as well.
“Normally in January we’d be inundated with people hoping to be matched, but it’s certainly been a bit less busy in that respect this year.
“But there are other things we need to focus on, and keeping people connected and feeling good about themselves is right up there with our priorities for now.
“Our Soiree Social is great for that, for getting people together and having a bit of fun. We’ve got Saturday morning fitness, we’ve got Monday night cookery and we have a programme coming up, Me, Myself and I which will see a counsellor talking about relationships — with other people as well as our relationship with ourselves.
“With everything going on right now it’s a very difficult time.
“Lots of people are feeling that loss of connection with the people, especially if their work and social lives are very quiet at the minute. The focus for now is keeping people connected and helping build their self-confidence and sense of wellbeing again.”
Because, says Claire, she predicts a big rush on the dating scene once life gets back to normal. “Oh yes,” she says. “I’m encouraging people to get their forms and applications filled in now because there’s going to be a mad rush when all this is over. People are dying for a hug!”
Find out more at soireesocietyni.com
Primary school teacher Jenny Jordan had all but given up on love when lockdown kicked in last March. Living in Ballygowan, Co Down, she’d told friends she was going to spend the weeks and months ahead focusing on herself — before one pal told her she’d found the man of her dreams.
“My friend said she wanted to introduce me to this guy on the House Party app,” recalls Jenny (33). “I wasn’t really bothered because by this time I’d completely given up on finding anyone, so I just said okay to this virtual date — and I thought it would be a bit of craic.”
So before long, Jenny was putting her make-up on for an online date with structural engineer David Kingsmill.
“It was strangely good,” laughs Jenny. “I thought he was good-looking and we got on really well. We did all the usual getting to know you chat, and had some good banter. We had three or four dates like that and at the same time we were texting and calling each other quite a bit.”
Then about five weeks after their first online date, the pair met in person for the first time.
“The restrictions had been eased a bit by then and we went for a walk in Bangor,” recalls David (35).
“It was really good and we sat and talked for hours, but the time just flew by. It was like we’d been on loads of dates by then.”
After their second outdoors date back in early summer, the pair made it official and deleted their other dating apps.
“We agreed to become a couple, and we got rid of Tinder and everything else,” says Jenny.
“I think it was June that David finally came to my house, and when restrictions were lifted in the summer we went to Portstewart for a weekend.
“Our personalities are similar, and we’re both at the same stage in life, looking for the same thing. Right from the start we’ve enjoyed each other’s company so much, hours would just fly by.”
And with lockdown rules tightened once again, the young couple — each of whom lives alone — have formed a bubble with one another.
“We spend most weekends together and a couple of nights a week,” says Jenny. “It’s definitely been an unusual start to a relationship, but it’s meant we’ve got to know each other really well in a short space of time.
“We have a lot of firsts to look forward to — we’ve never been to the cinema together, we’ve never had a pub crawl, we’ve never been abroad on holiday. But we’ll do all those things eventually.
We’ve made a really strong connection and we’ve talked already about the fact we’d both like to move in together one day, and maybe even get married.”
David, who lives in Comber, agrees. “It’s been a really positive thing in the midst of everything else that’s gone on this year,” he says.
“We’d actually met each other in passing once before, and it was a series of coincidences that got our mutual friend to link us up on House Party — and I’m so glad she did. We get on so well, but I think meeting the way we did during the lockdown worked for us because sometimes when you’re really trying to make things work, it doesn’t quite happen.
“The way it came about for us was less pressure because we didn’t have huge expectations — and we’ve ended up finding what we were looking for.”
Lisa McFarland runs Relationship Coaching NI, and since the pandemic hit, her following on social media has rocketed from 500 to 7,500 on Instagram alone as people turn to her for advice.
“Since all this began, people have been needing more support than ever,” says mum-of-three Lisa. “They’re looking for tips and tools about how to get through this, because it’s a really difficult time for everyone.”
And while Lisa, who has a background in HR, says building a positive relationship with ourselves is key, when it comes to romantic relationships a few simple steps can make a big difference.
“We spend so much time on our work, our health, or fitness,” says Lisa, from Muckamore, Co Antrim. “But how much time do we spend prioritising our relationships?
“We all need to think about that if we’re part of a couple, and make time to invest in our relationship.”
One of the most common stumbling blocks for couples according to Lisa — and one which can easily arise around Valentine’s Day — is when expectations and reality don’t meet in the middle.
“Your partner is not a mind-reader,” she says. “It’s all very well to expect something, but unless you’ve made clear what you’re thinking, then you could be very easily disappointed.”
And while Lisa says “absolutely” go for a bit of sexy underwear and a special meal on February 14, connecting with your other half and learning to understand one another is even more special.
“A fun thing to do is find out which of the ‘Five Love Languages’ you and your partner speak,” she says. “You can do a little test online, and it can unlock a lot of miscommunication. For example, one partner might empty the dishwasher regularly, and the other thinks there is no communication of love there, when they want to be told they look lovely. But for that partner, being told they look great means nothing, and if the other partner brought them a coffee while they were cutting the lawn, it would be like they were bringing the sun, moon and stars.”
Crucial to that, adds Lisa, is getting intimate.
“It’s different for every couple,” she says. “If you make it through a full weekend and you haven’t had time to make love, it’s time for a chat. Yes, things are difficult now, and many of us are seeing more of our partners than we normally would — that means making an effort to make things special has to be even more of a priority than ever.”
Follow Lisa on Instagram at @relationship.coaching.ni
Hospitality has been hit hard through the course of the pandemic.
But Jonny and Christina Taylor, owners of Shed Bistro on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, have done everything they can to keep their business going. Valentine’s Day will be no different.
“We took it on the chin at the very start,” says Jonny, from Greenisland, Co Antrim. “The first three weeks was actually nice, but then it went on to four weeks and five. By six weeks in we were crawling the walls and we had to think of a way to get back to work.”
So since May, Shed has been running its ‘Heat At Home’ takeaway service, with customers treating themselves to the restaurant’s high-end food all in the comfort of their homes.
“It built up slowly and by the time we got to Christmas we had to hire a refrigerated van because we were running out of space,” says Christina.
“It was actually quite emotional because we were speaking to some people having Christmas on their own for the first time ever. It was lovely to form some sort of connection with them and make their day a bit easier.
“For Valentine’s Day we’ve had lots of bookings too, and we think it’ll work really well for people.
“It’s a way to make the day special, and couples can recreate the whole thing at home without the hassle of babysitters or taxis into town.”
And while having a romantic restaurant-quality meal is certainly possible at home even during the current lockdown the couple, who have a one-year-old daughter, are confident people will be back once restrictions ease off.
“Definitely,” says Jonny. “There’s nothing quite like being in a restaurant, having someone else look after you, where you can relax and enjoy some food and drinks without the cleaning up.
“Even during the small periods we’ve reopened through the last year, we’ve been full. Our capacity was reduced initially because of social distancing but we managed to use the time to expand so we’ve been able to carry on without losing any staff.
“Already we’ve got people booked in for the first possible weekend when a lockdown is lifted. They know the dates might be pushed back, but it shows us how keen they are to get back.”
So what about a Valentine’s Day treat for themselves?
“We would normally never have the day off,” says Christina.
“This year, we’ll be finished in the early evening so we’ll bring a takeaway home as well and enjoy it when our little girl is in bed. My mum is staying with us at the minute, so we’ll have a trio for Valentine’s Day.
“And we think that’s lovely actually. Maybe this year Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be just about couples, we should share the love out far and wide because it’s what all of us need more than ever at the minute.”
Manager at Mimosa Flowers in Belfast, Wendy Heaney, says lockdown has meant a good year for florists - and she anticipates something similar for Valentine’s Day.
“Since lockdown people have carried on buying flowers, sometimes in greater quantities than before,” she says. “I think having a strong online presence is crucial in that respect, because people are able to order flowers for delivery safely online.
“It makes sense because so many of us are being kept away from our loved ones, that it’s a lovely way to tell someone you’re thinking of them.”
And with the most romantic day of the year just hours away, Wendy says red roses are still a popular choice.
“Lots of men still buy red roses,” she says.
“Recent years have seen a trend for mixed bouquets with a single red rose in the centre with some coloured roses as well.
“Hat boxes are very popular, but it’s also the gesture that people love because it’s a real luxury purchase.”
And far from easing off for Valentine’s Day 2021, the team at Mimosa are prepped to work through the night to make sure beautiful bouquets are delivered on time.
“We’re working right the way through,” says Wendy.
“From early on the 13th until on into the 14th everyone carries on working.
“If anyone gets tired, they’ll take a couple of hours out, but other than that it’s all hands to the deck. We expect this year to be as busy as every other year, if not busier, because the variety of options has narrowed this year due to restrictions.
“Most of the business we get at Valentine’s Day is men buying flowers for their wives and girlfriends, and often they buy smaller bouquets or bunches of flowers for their little girls.
For more visit www.mimosaflowersbelfast.co.uk