Sunday, 22 April 2012

Inside the driver’s seat at a speed dating event

Inside the driver’s seat at a speed dating event

There was a noticeable buzz in the air, one of excitement and a bit of nervousness, as singles sipped cocktails and mingled at the Avalon Hotel’s poolside patio in anticipation of the speed dating event hosted by “Speed LA Dating." The company offers high-end speed dating and matchmaking services that are hosted at chic lounges and clubs all over Los Angeles. A typical speed dating event has the guys move from table to table to meet each girl for a few minutes, however last Thursday’s “Drive ‘N Date” was paired with Chevrolet’s Centennial Anniversary and had a twist: each guy would sit in the back seat of a new GMC, Chevrolet or Cadillac car as the women would join them for a short ride around the Beverly Hills neighborhood.

The cars were as new to me as the experience of speed dating. I had an image of a packed room with singles being herded like sheep from one station to the next as the buzzer counts off exactly 6 minutes per interaction. Instead, Anoush Stevenson, the founder of “Speed LA Dating” and originally from England, wanted to bring her brand of speed dating to Los Angeles with sophistication and style. Events have been held at trendy clubs like STK and Playhouse with gourmet appetizers and no corny nametags.

I met Anoush at the beginning of the event and she spiritedly recounted how she was always the “party person” and wanted to bring some class to the speed dating scene, and since starting the company in 2007 it has flourished with branches in other major U.S. cities.

Her events attract men and women in their 20s and 30s with anywhere from 30-40 people attending each night. The Speed LA Dating event calendar lists 13 events happening in the month of August alone at such hips spots as Xino, District and Eve, and cost $42 to attend. What’s amazing is how 6 of those nights in August, state that WOMEN TICKETS ARE SOLD OUT, according to the website. That’s a draw for any guy who has ever wondered “where all the women?” as his crew bounces from bar to bar on a weekend night.

First Impressions
As I arrived with my friend Kevin to report on and participate at the event, I was impressed by the clean and contemporary feel of the hotel and the cheery nature of the British hosts. The first girl I met was Dana, dressed up in a sleek red dress, who shared that this was her first speed dating experience that she signed up for because of a colleague’s dare.

In the patio, the men were adorned in full suits, while others, myself included, wore collared shirts and jeans. The women looked dolled up as they sported fitted skirts, blouses, dresses and lots of high heels. It all felt elegant but comfortable, like an after-work happy hour, and I was glad that the event was understated.

I interviewed a few guys who were speed dating veterans about what they would talk about during the 6-minute drive. You could probably guess their inquires: What do you do? Where are you from? How long have you lived in LA? All of these are very standard get-to-know-you questions, but without much spark. I was determined to bring some life into the conversation with any girl who stepped into my vehicle.

My Ride
At the valet, I crossed my fingers in hopes of getting a sexy sports car, but soon I was ushered into the middle seat of a GMC 2011 Acadia, (pic) an SUV that was still nice-looking and, as I would later discover, fortunately more comfortable and spacious than a convertible.

But this was not your average SUV, as it was equipped with lights and video cameras, to record footage of this special event. (All other events ARE NOT video taped, just this one.) Behind the driver and passenger seats were two bright lights next to two small video cameras, which was hardly a “natural” way to meet someone, but I was prepared to go with the flow.

My first date was with a cheery woman who looked a little older than my typical mid-20s dating pool, but proved to be good company for the drive. We talked about the silliness of being videotaped in the backseat of a car during our first encounter, but soon we relaxed and chatted about our passions, which were for me always include cooking and Italy.

Soon we were back in front of the hotel and I was marking my impressions on a score card with selections such as “Fancy a drink sometime” or “Not my cup of tea.”

The next date was with a stylish fashionista who regularly travels to Milan to work with shoe designers. She had come to the event with a few of her friends, and seemed a bit aloof in conversation.

You’re in a Car, What do you talk about?

By the fourth date, I had become more accustomed to my surroundings and employed my usual strategies when I’m at a party where I don’t know many people:

- Befriend those around you
- Be playful and crack jokes

My driver Jason and I quickly became acquainted and I introduced him as my co-pilot to my dates.

Also, when a girl would enter, one of the event hosts would tell her to buckle her seat belt, to which I would add with a mock-serious face, “Please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

I’d then ask her if she’d like a “tour” of the car.

“My architect and I are planning to do some remodeling,” I said with a smile, “but here’s the general game plan.” Pointing to the front seat, “This is where the lounge will be, as it offers great views of the city.” I explained that the middle seats, where the two of us were talking, was the living area, best for greeting guests and getting the party started.

In the back seats, “We’re going to install a kitchen because I love to cook, and in the corner we’re thinking of adding a jacuzzi.” By now, a date would be smiling or laughing, and as I gestured to the roof I mentioned how I wasn’t sure how to decorate a few blank walls with art and wanted her input.

I then got a sense of each woman’s artistic style, as one suggested a neon art installation like from one of her favorite museums while another preferred a simple, patterned wall paper to not takeaway from the rest of the car. I’ve always been a goofball, and I made it a point to enjoy the conversation, regardless of whether or not I was interested in dating the girl.

My secret exposed
I was excited when Dana stepped into my car on the fifth date, but suddenly she pointed at me and said, “You! You’re undercover!” Word had traveled that I was covering the event for a dating blog, and gave off the impression that I was there only for the story and not to seriously experience speed dating, which was not true. I tried to assure her that I was single and interested in going out with anyone I felt a connection with that night. She calmed down and I made a mental note to next time be more discreet… which would mean NOT holding a small notebook and pen in my hand.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we had had a great chat with all of those pleasant non-verbal “good-signs” like strong eye contact and leaning in during the conversation. She complimented me by noting that our ride had passed by the fastest so far.

After what was well over an hour of meeting seven women, I was happy when the event ended so I could step out of my SUV and take in some fresh non-air-conditioned air. I turned in my score card and went to meet with my friend to get his perspective.

Kevin gestured to his legs and shouted, my “legs feel numb!” He had been driven in a posh red convertible, the 2011 Chevy Camaro (pic) which is great to show off to a date when you are both in the front seat, but when you’re in the back seat, the leg room is very limiting. Still, he had a good time and had even asked one girl to go on two rides in a row, having felt that they were connecting and deserved more time together.

Back at the hotel, the crowd was nibbling on desserts and getting the opportunity to spend more time with those they liked. I had the chance to go into the “Confessional Cab” to share my experience for 2 minutes in front of a video camera, to which I was happily rewarded with AMC movie tickets. Later, I re-acquainted myself with a few ladies I had met before. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and I could tell some dates were being setup and numbers exchanged.

As we headed out, Kevin, an entrepreneur with a business-like mind, noted that he would definitely do Speed LA Dating again, because it was unique, fun and…though this may sound unromantic… “efficient.” He liked how he got to meet a lot of women who were all single and interested in mingling, which is a better use of one’s time than talking to girl after girl to get a date at a bar.

A few attendees voiced small complaints about being stuck in a car for too long or not being able to meet enough men, as they preferred the "car-free" dating events. I later noticed a group of girls huddling around their phones and discussing their plans to sign-up for the next event at the “W” Hotel later that month.

I walked away with a pleasant experience, a phone number in hand and the reassuring thought that if you’re single, there are a lot of great opportunities to meet women, and to see if speed dating is for you, I suggest you test drive it yourself.


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