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Love at first sight or at first swipe? The rebirth of speed dating

Speed dating has become more popular alongside wariness of dating apps.

What do you think of when you hear the term speed dating?

Tables lining the room? Soft jazz music encapsulating the bar with drinks flowing? Women remaining seated at their tables while the men rotate around the locale like a conveyor belt? The smell of perfume mingled with stale beer?

Then there’s the name tags, the standard “getting to know you” questions and talk of future plans. After 10 minutes someone rings a bell. Rinse and repeat for the remainder of the night.

This is what 35-year-old consultant psychiatrist Karishma Kulkarni expected when she attended her first speed dating event in Brunswick East. Instead she was met with a room full of people standing around in a room chatting building friendships with other attendees.

Kulkarni initially got into the culture of speed dating because she was hoping to find a partner without having to look online.

“I felt like it’s very hard to understand somebody without meeting them face to face or just texting them on the phone,” she tells upstart. “I felt like it would be easier to get a vibe of somebody if I saw them directly and then decided to meet them further.”

CitySwoon is one of multiple speed dating companies in Australia. But it’s a bit different from the others.

Attendees are matched up live using a matching algorithm that looks at the dating profiles they filled out for the event. They then get sent a photo of who they’re going to talk to for the next 10 minutes. Once they’ve found their match, participants can find each other and sit at the bar, stand around or go outside to have their date. This then repeats until the conclusion of the night when people go home or reach out to someone they met in the night and would like to get to know more.

Established in 2014 by Sydney based couple Brett Couston and Louise O’Connor, CitySwoon has been running double the number of monthly events than pre-COVID. They expect by the end of this year they’ll increase that to three times the amount in some cities and have three or four times the number of attendees compared to three years ago.

Chief Operating Officer of CitySwoon Chris Marnie says speed dating is giving people a different way to build relationships in person whether that be romantically or socially. People don’t only go to CitySwoon to find the one, but use it as a chance to socialise more —particularly within the 29 – 49 age demographic. People are also tired of the apps, Marnie says.

“They got tired of online dating, they got tired of not meeting people,” he tells upstart.

“A lot of people even now just treat it as an opportunity to get out and get to know people face to face and have a bit of a social interaction with people and just see what happens.”

Luke Higgins is a recurring presence at these events and is trying to find his “Mrs. Luke”. He says being able to meet someone in person and gain an understanding of them in a short period of time is what attracted him to speed dating over using dating apps such as Tinder.

“Let’s see if there’s a connection, let’s meet up, see if we like the look of each other,” he tells upstart. “Let’s see if the personalities connect, and if it does let’s see if we go on another date.”

Tinder was the most downloaded dating app worldwide in 2023 with 55 million downloads. Forbes Health surveyed 5,000 US respondents who have actively dated in the last five years and found that nearly 70 percent of users said it led to a romantic and exclusive relationship.

Kulkarni doesn’t mind dating apps, but finds it difficult to portray herself online. She says she feels like she is putting on a mask.

“It’s really hard to know what somebody is like, because sometimes people are not very good at writing a profile, or some people might put things on a profile that are not true about themselves,” she says.

“So it makes more sense if you see somebody directly. You can get a gut feeling about them sometimes.”

That gut feeling can be finding chemistry with someone, but it can also save people’s lives. The biggest factor driving many women away from dating apps is safety. It’s hard to get an accurate feel for someone online.

Chris Marnie has noticed this too amongst the women who attend the CitySwoon events. They mention to the event organisers how unsafe they feel using the apps and that they would rather meet someone in person.

“[Dating apps] are definitely losing popularity, particularly with women,” he says. “A lot of that is the safety aspect. There’s lots of horror stories around Tinder dates gone wrong and things like that.”

The Australian Institute of Criminology surveyed 9,987 dating app users and found three quarters of those users were victims of online sexual violence in the last five years. One third experienced a form of abuse in person from someone they met on the app.

Not everyone has had bad experiences, but would rather meet someone in person and find a connection that way. Kulkarni has attended two speed dating events and will continue trying to find someone to have a long-term relationship with.

She doesn’t think it’s a question of meeting people who are looking for a relationship, but it’s more about meeting somebody who she likes, they reciprocate the feelings and want to be committed together.

“Everything has an equal success or failure rate. I wouldn’t say speed dating is superior to online dating,” she says.

“I wouldn’t say it’s superior to being set up by a friend on a blind date. I think there’s similar chances of success or failure. They’re just different experiences and it’s good to try different things.”


Article: Casey McGuire is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Sports Media) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @caseymcguire01

Photo: by author.

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