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How to Play Cupid: A Look at Southeast Asia’s First and Largest Dating Company

Lunch Actually has arranged 100,000 successful dates since its launch in 2004. With the rise of online dating apps, what keeps it relevant?

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BY Cristina Morales - 29 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Violet Lim didn’t set out to be a matchmaker. After reading law at the University of Manchester and getting her Masters in Personnel Management at the London School of Economics, she interned at a law firm and found that law was not her calling. It was at her first job with Citigroup Singapore that she got the inspiration to start her dating company, Lunch Actually—Southeast Asia’s first and largest dating company.

“As a management associate at Citigroup, I got to work in many different departments, and observed that many of my colleagues were single and not dating,” she recalls. “That was rather puzzling for me as they were attractive and eligible people. I soon realized that because they were working really long hours, they were virtually married to the bank.”

In 2004, Lim quit her job to venture into her new career as a modern-day matchmaker. Lunch Actually hinges on the concept of lunch dating, something she describes as “short, sweet, and simple—long enough to get to know someone, but not too long that it would become awkward.” But the dating company wasn’t just going to be a lunch dating service. “Our vision from day one was very clear,” Lim continues. “We wanted to be the most effective dating service.”

Making a match

But how does it work? First, each potential client comes to their office to chat with a dating consultant to set up a profile and communicate their preferences. Only when the consultant finds a suitable candidate does the company offer a membership package. Once both parties approve the match, Lunch Actually arranges the date and books the restaurant. “All they need to do is turn up at the restaurant and enjoy their date,” says Lim. After the date, the clients are contacted and asked for their feedback, which will then be used to fine-tune their dating criteria in order to find their next match.

Lunch Actually started as a two-man team consisting of Lim and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Jamie. Today, the dating service has grown to a team of 110 people in six cities (Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Bangkok), and plans to expand to three more markets in the coming years. As these metropolitan cities grow and become more fast-paced, it becomes more challenging for professionals and executives to find a suitable partner.

Some of their clients only need to go on one date before finding someone they like, while others go on more than 10 dates before finding their soulmate. On the average, Lim’s clients stay with the service for 1-2 years. However, she says they’d like their clients not to stay with them for too long. That’s why Lunch Actually also offers date coaching and image coaching services to help their clients successfully find a match. “We want them to find The One as soon as possible,” Lim says.

Of the 100,000 dates that Lunch Actually has set up, 85% of the dates have been highly rated by their clients. Says Lim, “Now, we hear of good news from our clients every week, be it a successful couple or a marriage, or sometimes even a LAB—Lunch Actually Baby.”

The rise of online dating

When Lunch Actually first launched, dating agencies still carried the stigma of offering a service for the creepy and desperate. Instead of hurting the company, the advent of online dating apps (such as Tinder and OKCupid) has actually helped them by normalizing the use of a dating service.

Lunch Actually appeals to singles who want something more serious—a tailor-made experience that typical dating services cannot offer. “Singles can now swipe through hundreds of profiles a night,” Lim says. “Hence, singles might not put in as much effort into each date as compared to the past.” The company has, however, adapted with the times, launching their own app esync, which was designed to lead to more actual offline dates with pre-screened users.

“When we first came up with esync, there was an uproar in our company as it was lower-priced,” Lim says. “But we are okay with creating products and services that might even compete with our own existing products. It’s about what the client wants. And honestly, if we didn’t come up with this product, someone else will. So we constantly challenge ourselves this way.”