“I spent a month going to ‘singles parties’ to see if they're better than dating apps”

Written by Isabella Silvers

IRL events are taking over the dating scene – but are they worth ditching apps for? Intrepid single Isabella Silvers finds out… 

Red lipstick applied and gold hoops in, I round the corner to the bar. It’s a sunny evening and I’m arm-in-arm with my friend, on our way to The Exhibit in Balham. After getting our pink wristbands, we take our G&Ts to the terrace and look around the Thursday evening crowd. Music mingles with the relaxed chatter of the small groups sitting across the terrace, but I’m nervous.

I’ve been for cocktails with my friend many, many times before, but tonight is different. We’re not just scoping out the drinks menu, but the men as well. This night is actually part of a new dating trend – a singles event run by dating app Thursday, where everyone in the room is unattached and looking for love. After two years (and counting) of video dates and socially distanced walks, IRL singles parties and events are gaining huge popularity around the country, as evidenced by Thursday’s 120,000 active users. 

And they’re not the only company getting in on the action. Alongside Thursday, there’s Inner Circle, who aim to get people dating ‘better’ by encouraging users to put more effort into their profiles and screening every member. They’ve just thrown their 500th party for their 5 million members, so something’s working. Then there’s POM (Power of Music) for music-focused events, Oh Queer Cupid for LGBTQ+ speed dating comedy nights and mixers for Sikhs and Hindus with Matched by Sukh Kaur and more. Even digital-first apps are getting in on the action, with Bumble hosting a Summer Social and rolling out in-person events across America.

With recent research by Inner Circle showing that 81% of single people have ‘meeting someone’ at the top of their to-do list, it’s no surprise that singles parties are booming. Pre-pandemic, only 45% of those looking for love would head to a dating event. Now, that figure stands at an appropriately raunchy 69%. Psychotherapist Nova Cobban isn’t shocked that we’re eager to get back out there, explaining how dating apps don’t give us all the information we need to decide if someone is a match. “In person, we consciously and subconsciously notice body language, like how relaxed people are and little quirks that can be endearing. All these cues help us make a much quicker assessment of if we’re attracted to someone.”

I’ve been single for five months after ending an 18-month relationship. I loved my ex-boyfriend, but we were incompatible – he wanted to stay in, I wanted to be sociable. He wasn’t sure where he was going in life, I was laser-focused on my ambitions. Breaking up with him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and I’m definitely not ready for a serious relationship, but at 29 years old and for the first time in my life, I’m excited to date for fun.

Before my most recent ex, I was single for six years after my first heartbreak. I caught my boyfriend cheating and the break-up demolished my confidence. Feeling totally unlovable, I took dating far too seriously after that, analysing every right swipe for long-term relationship potential and dismissing profiles too soon. Now I’m more open and confident, but that nagging voice telling me that I’m not fun or sexy enough is still there. Singles parties terrify me, but you never know when you might meet the next great love (or night) of your life.

In the name of love, I set out to try a range of dating events to see if finding romance in the real world is possible. Have things changed since I was last single? Are online conversations that drag on for months a thing of the past? To put this to the test, I’m adding as many types of singles events as possible to my calendar, starting with Thursday’s weekly singles parties.

Once settled on the terrace, I check out the table of guys nearby, but they look too young for me, with most people at the party in their early 20s. Instead, I get chatting to a trio of young women. This isn’t their first event and they’ve had success with Thursday before. A flirt at a bar turned into multiple dates for one woman. When I ask what they’re hoping for tonight, they say that they won’t be disappointed if they don’t meet anyone. For them, Thursday is a fun night out with friends, with romance as a bonus. It’s a sentiment shared by the other guests, who are almost all in small groups.

When I do see someone who looks like my type, I feel like a bird in a David Attenborough documentary, batting my lashes to attract a mate. Sadly, nobody makes a move and I’m too scared to, so before the paper straw in my second drink turns to mush, we head home.

Walking down to the main bar with my friend, it becomes clear that the terrace where we were sitting wasn’t the mingling hotspot. With dimmed lights and loud music, the conversation here between singles is flowing almost as fast as the cocktails. The vibe is more charged than on the terrace – if I’d hung around downstairs, maybe I would have been able to kiss and tell.

When I tell Thursday co-founder Matthew McNeill Love (yes, that’s his real last name) what kind of guy I’m looking for, he’s not surprised that I didn’t find love in Balham. He explains how their tailored events, like fitness classes, art gallery tours and upcoming events with Universal and Ministry of Sound could be better for meeting someone on my wavelength.

Having launched in July 2020, Thursday now hosts 20-30 events a week in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, London and New York. “We don’t doubt that Tinder, Bumble and Hinge work,” Matthew says, “but consumer behaviour has changed. Getting a like on those apps is like getting a like on Instagram – we needed our likes to mean something more. With us, you’ve only got a few hours to send or act on a like. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it in the first place?”

My next event is Smudged Lipstick’s Jenga speed dating. I’m a little nervous, but I’m glad that there’s a shared event to spark conversation, as is fellow single Lisa*, who I sit next to at the bar while we wait for the games to begin. She’s been to these events before and has her talking points planned out. Like other singles I speak to that night, she enjoys the life drawing, wine tasting and magic classes and doesn’t mind if the night fails to facilitate a romantic connection – at least she’s had a good time.

Jordi Sinclair, who founded Smudged Lipstick six years ago, says that their events don’t promise love. “We want people to have fun without any pressure to meet anybody. We wanted to create something more rock’n’roll than other companies – people that come to our events are up for something different rather than waiting for hosts to introduce them to somebody,” he says.

My first game is against a pilot who has good chat. I lose at Jenga, but mark down on the sheet we’ll all hand in at the end of the night that I’d like to be more than friends. The nextfew dates go well, with no awkward silences, but I don’t feel another spark until James*. We’re both into music and the conversation flows. The next day, Jordi emails me my matches. James is interested. When I work up the nerve, I’ll ask him out.

My final event of the experiment is at Goodness Gracious, a rooftop bar looking out across the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool. Workout gear on and yoga mat in hand, I get the lift to the top floor and see 30 people in their 20s and 30s stretched across the decking. We’re here for a yoga social run by Bored of Dating Apps. I’ve been feeling sick all day, worrying about what I should wear, who I’d talk to and whether my make-up was subtle but glowy enough, but I’m feeling a little bit more confident with each event I go to.

As I search for somewhere to unroll my mat, I spy a space in front of a cute guy with a great smile next to two women. I snag the space, and as much as I’d been dreading walking into the session alone, we quickly start talking about how we heard about the event (Instagram), the weather (of course) and how good we are at tree pose (variable).

After the yoga session, we all grab a rooftop drink. One turns into three, which ends up with the group belting out Man, I Feel Like A Woman at a dive bar karaoke. My throat was hoarse from singing and laughing, and everyone exchanged Instagram handles. It was so nice to be around a group of single people who didn’t have to rush home to partners or children and to flirt without checking for wedding rings.

Bored of Dating Apps founder Jessica Evans started her in-person events in January and says they’re about connecting with people away from social media and solo swiping on the sofa. “We host hikes, yoga nights, supper clubs and trips away,” Jessica shares, aiming to build a lifestyle that’s better for singles’ mental health. “People have had enough of ghosting and breadcrumbing.” For Jessica’s events, friendship is just as important as romance: “I miss those friendships where you can go out for drinks at the drop of a hat or have a spontaneous girls’ weekend,” she explains. “I’ve found a lot of my friends are at school runs, baby sensory classes or spending weekends with their partners.” 

With my final singles night of the month done, I reflect on the experience. It’s clear that there’s a craving for these types of events. Like many singles, I’m bored of conversations that go nowhere and waiting weeks to see if there’s physical chemistry. People are taking dating back into their own hands, bypassing algorithms for IRL connections – after lockdown removed the opportunity to date in-person, we’re eager to speed things up. It’s clear everyone is more committed to actually having a conversation – or at least a snog at the end of the night. While dating apps present the possibility of meeting someone in person, singles parties guarantee it, even if they don’t always end in a relationship.

Ultimately, I still haven’t been convinced to delete the holy trinity of dating apps just yet, but I’m more open to the possibility of where I might find someone than ever before. Hot girl summer, here I come.

*Names have been changed

Images: Getty

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