Love is always in the air at the Bowes-Lyon Partnership, Surrey’s acclaimed dating agency. Jane McGowan marks her diary
According to the latest Office of National Statistics figures, 240,854 UK marriages took place in 2013. Hurrah! Let confetti be scattered. Oh, hang on a minute, the report also mentions 114,720 divorces in that very same year. Put the champagne back on ice: it’s tissue time.
So what to do if you find yourself prematurely back on the shelf? Wait for your friends’ marriages to collapse so that you can all go out ‘on the pull’ again? Go through a colleague’s phone contacts to check if there is someone filed under ‘wife’? Maybe not. Time, perhaps, to take a deep breath and call in the professionals.
That’s certainly the view of Hayley Bystram of the Bowes-Lyon Partnership, who founded the upmarket dating agency in 2009 – initially as a response to her own search for love after finding herself, still in her early 30s, as a young divorcee.
“It’s hard for people these days,” she explains, at her stylish office overlooking the river in Godalming. “Everyone has such busy careers and lots of commitments. They want to meet someone, but they may be very time-poor – and that’s where we come in. We do the legwork.”
And, as a 40-something female myself, I can certainly see why this would appeal. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe I’d have a go at speed dating – although, come to think of it, that’s probably not ‘a thing’ anymore. More likely, I would head to the myriad dating websites and spend my evenings scrolling through pages of wannabe Casanovas, whose credentials may or may not match their claims.
Bowes-Lyon aims to take the stress and desperation out of finding love, pairing people who have been deemed a good match by Hayley and her four-strong team.
“We just want to open people’s eyes and give them positive experiences,” says Hayley. “We encourage them to look outside their comfort zone. As a dating safety net, we make sure they feel comfortable and confident. Although the long-term goal is serious, the process of dating should be fun.”
The USP of the Bowes-Lyon Partnership, which has classy offices in Belgravia as well as in Surrey, is very much its personal touch. As one might expect, however, such bespoke assistance doesn’t come cheap. An annual membership – you can take a six-month payment break, should you need to for career, holiday or personal reasons – carries a whopping fee of £7,500. This buys you Hayley’s expertise and one-to-one attention. Perhaps more importantly though, such a hefty price tag brings with it a high calibre of clientele.
“Our members do fit a certain niche. They are all professional people from similar backgrounds and with certain lifestyle aspirations, and all of them are looking for a long-term partner.”
Chatting over coffee, I am left in no doubt that Hayley takes very seriously the happiness and wellbeing of her pool of up to 1,000 singles, meeting every one of them face to face before allowing them to sign on the dotted line.
“I like to see them in an informal setting,” she explains. “We are talking about emotional things, about their personal lives, and so I like them to feel relaxed, somewhere they can really open up. To achieve a high level of success, it’s important that I understand all about their backgrounds and future aspirations.”
As Hayley freely admits, however, matchmaking is not an “exact science” and “success” can’t be guaranteed.
“At the end of the day, it’s down to chemistry, that one spark, and I can’t bottle that. But if people are on the same path; if all the key criteria are ticked – similar drive, similar background, similar ambitions and lifestyle – then it’s just down to whether or not they get on. And you never know that until they meet.”
Hayley’s top tips for a first date
1) Pick up the phone in the first instance and invite them out – don’t text or What’s App
2) Always listen to the other person, don’t just talk about yourself – engage with that person
3) Choose a suitable venue – cafés and bars are a much better option than asking someone out for dinner. Sharing a meal is a more intimate experience that can be saved for later dates
4) Aim for 45-60 minutes. If it goes well you can extend
5) Go armed with some background information
6) Have a few prepared questions or conversation starters ready in case of awkward silences
7) Don’t just talk about work – enquire about holidays and family too
Hayley has an impressive success rate, notching up dozens of new relationships, several weddings and even a number of Bowes-Lyon babies. Inevitably though, not every date goes to plan. Matched couples receive strict instructions not to contact each other following their initial rendezvous. Instead, they are told to phone Hayley direct and “report back with the gossip”.
If everything is rosy, they are permitted to set up another meeting. In the event of Cupid’s arrow going astray, however, Hayley insists on being the one to break the news to the other party – and only after another match has been found, thus tempering the blow.
“If they come back and say, in effect, ‘They were lovely, but there was no chemistry,’ I call the other party up, explain the situation and then move on to the next introduction. Rejection is a part of dating. But we’re here to take the awkwardness out of it and keep the momentum going. We take the feedback and move on.”
And, as part of the service, Hayley is always at the end of the telephone to offer advice, both before and after the date.
“I had this one guy, a CEO of a big company,” she recalls. “He called me up from outside the restaurant before his date, saying he was just too scared to go in and didn’t know what to say. And this was a man who led international meetings. But I told him to relax and gave him a few suggestions to get the conversation started.”
Hayley clearly loves helping others to find love. But at what point does she step back to let nature take its course?
“Once they get to date five or six, we move aside and stop being so intrusive and nosey,” she laughs. “Sometimes people know at once. I still have an email from a gentleman who said he was going to marry a certain lady after they had been on their first date. I didn’t think much about it, but it happened and now they have a child.”
Over 75% of members will have a relationship of more than six months within the initial annual membership, says Hayley, although not all of them report back.
“I think that meeting through a dating agency is still a little bit taboo,” she admits. “People don’t like to talk about it and that’s the nature of our business – everything is discreet. Sometimes we get wedding invitations in the post, or we have people coming to us because a friend has got married after using our service, and we weren’t even aware that the couple were still seeing each other.”
It’s a particularly busy time of year for Hayley, as people are either acting on a New Year’s resolution to find love or are determined not to spend another Valentine’s Day on their own.
“It’s a very seasonal business. People can be short-term motivated, particularly gentlemen, so it often takes an event to get them to act. We have clients of varying status, different levels of wealth, but they are all in the same boat. They want to meet someone and, at the end of the day, they just have to jump in with both feet.”
Sound like you? Time, surely, to call Hayley and prepare to meet your match.
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