How Tinder and K-dramas changed dating preferences in Singapore
After 17 years, Lunch Actually is still playing Cupid. We sit down with co-founder and CEO Violet Lim to find out where the company is at now, and how dating preferences have changed over the years.
Before dating apps such as Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, Paktor and others normalised meeting a potential spouse online, Singapore dating agency Lunch Actually had already been matching singles and sending them out on blind dates.
Founded in 2004, Lunch Actually is the brainchild of 41-year-old Violet Lim. In her early 20s, Lim was working as a management associate in a bank when she realised that most of her peers, though successful, were single.
Working long hours prevented them from having a social life, let alone going out on dates. While on a trip to Japan, she chanced upon the concept of lunch dating.
“I thought that it was something that could work for my colleagues. No matter how busy they were, they would always set aside time to eat lunch with friends or people they work with. So why not have lunch with someone you’ve never met before, who might be a good match for you?” she recalled.
At the age of 24, Lim took the plunge and left her job to start Lunch Actually together with her then-boyfriend, now husband, Jamie Lee. Seventeen years on, the company is still playing Cupid to singles looking for love.
To date, it has arranged more than 140,000 dates and matched more than 4,500 happily married couples. The company has also expanded beyond Singapore to establish offices in Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand.
For a company that started as a traditional matchmaking service, that’s a big feat. And although most people would think that the rise of dating apps in recent years would have posed a threat to the business, Lim says that it was in fact the opposite that happened.
Thanks to dating apps, people have become more open to engaging an external party to help them find love, Lim shared. “Now that it has become the norm to be on a dating app if you’re single, there are people who have tried it and realised it’s not their cup of tea. This has really opened up the market for us,” she said.
After all, being on a dating app can be quite tedious. “The trouble with dating apps is that there are all sorts of characters. People find it challenging to keep sifting through these people. But because they’ve tried out a dating app, they are more open to the idea of using a service like ours. They realise that instead of doing the screening and shortlisting work by themselves, they are basically outsourcing that work to us,” Lim elaborated.
"Now that it has become the norm to be on a dating app if you’re single, there are people who have tried it and realised it’s not their cup of tea. This has really opened up the market for us."
A DIGITALISATION FOCUS
While Lunch Actually started off as a service to match singles for a lunch date, its offerings have evolved to include a coaching arm. The company’s professional date coaches and certified image consultants help singles to become “the best version of themselves”, said Lim.
“What we’ve realised is that a lot of people, when they think about finding love, they think it’s all about meeting the right one. Our philosophy is that to find the right one, you need to be the right one, meet the right one, and choose the right one,” she elaborated.
In recent years, the company has also focused on digitalising several aspects of the business. It launched its own dating app, LunchClick, in 2015. However, unlike those already on the market, the app is meant only for serious, not serial, daters. Instead of endless swiping, users are only sent one match per day, and are only given 24 hours to “like” or “pass”.
Last year, the company also launched the Lunch Actually App, which helps its clients to set up appointments with consultants, view their handpicked matches, arrange dates, submit their feedback, and chat in real-time with dating coaches to ask for advice.
The app was born out of the desire to automate some of the consultants’ tasks, so that they can focus on those that require a personal touch, such as the coaching services. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure that our clients put their best foot forward. That’s what we want our consultants to be focusing their time on,” said Lim.
Most recently, the company tapped into livestreaming, a booming trend in Asia. In conjunction with Valentine’s Day, Lunch Actually held a four-part matchmaking series on Lazada’s livestream platform, LazLive. It featured the journey of two singles who were trying to find a match, and viewers could either follow their dating journey, or submit their own profiles to be match-made with the featured bachelor and bachelorette.
Combining shopping and entertainment, the series also allowed viewers to purchase Lunch Actually services such as online dating and grooming masterclasses.
“We are a company that is always experimenting and trying out new ideas and engagement platforms. Based on our experience, new engagement platforms that we have experimented with have helped us to reach new markets, generate new leads and increase business revenue,” Lim commented.
"When (people) think about finding love, they think it’s all about meeting the right one. Our philosophy is that to find the right one, you need to be the right one, meet the right one, and choose the right one."
A START-UP MENTALITY
At the core of it all, Lim shares that the company’s success thus far can be attributed to its “start-up mentality”, which is still in place today despite the business having been around for almost two decades. This allows the team to be nimble and agile, so that it can come up with innovative solutions according to changing trends and circumstances.
Take for example the circuit breaker period. During this time, the Lunch Actually team pivoted to organising Zoom dates for clients. Although some clients were skeptical at first, they soon warmed up to the idea of a virtual date, with some even lasting “four to five hours”, Lim said.
“We created ice breakers for our clients, like getting them to dress according to a theme, or asking them to each prepare a drink. So when they first see each other on screen, they can talk about what they’ve chosen to wear or what drink they decided to prepare,” Lim shared.
“I’m still a big advocate of face-to-face dates, but one interesting thing that came out of virtual dates is you can really get to know a person. If your date’s Zoom background is a bookshelf, or a certain painting that he or she has in the house, it sparks a conversation,” she said.
In total, Lunch Actually has organised 350 Zoom dates so far. “We even had clients who watched sunsets together,” Lim recalled.
Having been in the matchmaking industry for several years, Lim has witnessed firsthand the changing preferences of Singaporeans when it comes to finding a life partner. So, have Singaporeans gotten pickier over the years?
“I would say everyone is picky,” Lim said. “But I think it’s important to educate people about the difference between superficial criteria and significant criteria. You can be picky about a significant criteria, but you shouldn’t be picky about a superficial criteria.”
Superficial criteria include things like height and looks, while significant criteria include things like values and character, Lim explained.
In terms of preferences however, what has changed? Interestingly, the Korean drama fever has had some effect.
“Compared to seven or eight years ago, I feel like now, we are starting to see that there are more women who are open to dating younger men. It could be the Korean drama effect. After all, there’s even a category for it, called noona romance,” said Lim, referring to the popular K-drama trope where a younger man is paired with an older woman.
Lim also observed that more people now are more concerned about physical appearance. “It could also be a result of Korean dramas, or just TV dramas in general,” shared Lim. “Or it could be because of dating apps. On dating apps, the first thing you see is a person’s photo.”
“But generally, preferences haven’t changed much. People still prioritise compatibility and finding someone they can connect with,” she said.
"It's important to educate people about the difference between superficial criteria and significant criteria. You can be picky about a significant criteria, but you shouldn’t be picky about a superficial criteria."
‘LOVE IS A CHOICE, NOT A FEELING’
Looking towards the future, Lim says that the company is far from their goal of achieving “1 million happy marriages”. “Digitalisation is the way to go, and we still have a lot of things that we want to do,” she said.
In the meantime, Lim finds purpose in “knowing that our work transforms not just one person’s life, but generations to come”.
“It is very fulfilling to know that because Lunch Actually exists, these people, who otherwise wouldn’t have met, have gotten married and now have kids,” she said.
So, what’s the one marriage advice the love guru would like to share with couples out there? “I came across this article about this old couple who have been together for 50 years. They were asked to share the secret to their long-lasting marriage, and their answer was that they never fell out of love at the same time,” Lim shared.
“I feel that’s the reality of relationships. It’s important to know that when we get into a relationship or marriage, there will be ups and downs and there will be times when we are not lovable. It’s important to remember that love is a choice, and not a feeling,” she reflected.
"It’s important to know that when we get into a relationship or marriage, there will be ups and downs and there will be times when we are not lovable. It’s important to remember that love is a choice, and not a feeling."