Heart Searching: Making a date for dinner with Hillie: Dinner Dates has 4,500 members. Catherine Riley joined some of them at the London Hilton

STIGMA is a very peculiar thing - it can strike when you are least expecting it. It hit me the moment I entered the lobby of the London Hilton hotel, on my way to a Dinner Dates evening.

Normally fairly calm and rational, I was overcome by an almost irrestible impulse to tell the doorman, receptionist and cloakroom attendant that yes, I was part of the Dinner Dates party, but no, I wasn't a client, I was writing an article, and yes, thank you, I already had a partner.

Later that evening, I found out that many people arrive saying they are an 'old friend of Hillie's (Hillie Marshall, who runs Dinner Dates)' but relax on being introduced to other people. On hearing that I hadn't been before I was welcomed, like a new member of a club. John from east London told me: 'You'll really enjoy it - I've been six or seven times.'

And that is what Dinner Dates is like - more a club than an agency. There is no annual fee, just an initial payment of pounds 35 for life membership, so people can drop out and return as their circumstances change. An idea thrown up in casual conversation with a couple of girlfriends led Hillie, then a producer of variety and old-time music hall shows, to place an advertisement in a newspaper to test the ground for her fledgling company.

Using her flair for design and production, Hillie planned a different sort of agency. 'Like a show,' she says, 'everything has to be choreographed.' The avalanche of responses to her first advertisement gave her a rather larger cast to work with than anticipated. Since Dinner Dates began 4 years ago, over 4,500 people have joined, the number of active members varying from month to month. There is no pressure on members to attend dinners - people go as and when they want. The average cost per evening is pounds 55 including pre-dinner drink, wine, food, service and VAT) and evenings are held at hotels such as the Lanesborough, the Dorchester and the Ritz. For more lively nights out, Hillie arranges dinners at Stringfellows and Barbarella 2.

There are 2 dinners a week, each accommodating 32 people. The evening I went, there were four tables of eight diners. After the main course, Hillie moved the men around two places, so everyone would have an opportunity of meeting all their tablemates. Tables are allocated according to age and interests - Hillie also tries to seat non-smokers and smokers away from each other. Once a month a larger dinner, for 48 people, is held, and this also involves the older members of Dinner Dates.

As Alice, who had come up for the evening from Southend, said: 'You get to go to places you wouldn't normally go.' While it would be wrong to describe someone who had been to several of Hillie's evenings as a veteran of Dinner Dates, it had become a part of her life as 'you get to meet new friends more than anything'.

This relaxed approach is the key to Dinner Dates' success. Hillie phones her clients the day after they have been to a dinner, to get their reactions to the evening. She is not just interested in whether or not there is anyone they would like to be put in touch with, but also wants to know their reactions to the venue, food and what they thought of the mix of people.

Earlier this year, Dinner Dates was featured on Carlton Television's Singles programme, with the memorable voiceover of the female subject bemoaning the fact that one of the men at her table had suggested a 'gang- bang'. I took a long hard look around the room to see if anyone at the Hilton was suggesting anything similar to the seven strangers they were sitting with. Everybody seemed to be getting on well enough without having to suggest such a novel method of breaking the ice. Not that the ice needs breaking, however. The evening started with Hillie greeting everyone as if they were an old friend - 'I don't know how she remembers everyone's names,' whispered Alice - immediately putting 'first-timers' (and me) at ease. I had expected embarrassed silences and stilted conversation, but I felt more relaxed here than I have done at friends' dinner parties.

In a previous life Hillie must have been a Victorian society hostess who held terribly successful soirees in her parlour, which all the best people attended. It became obvious as the evening wore on that people do not just see Hillie as 'the lady in charge', but as a friend and confidante.

Working from an office within her home, Hillie and her team are on call 24 hours a day. She admits that things can get very hectic, but says: 'I enjoy doing this more than anything I've ever done before.' She is now branching out into hosting more social events: golf and tennis weekends are proving extremely popular, as are days out at Kempton Park races, and evenings at the greyhound track. An idea in the pipeline is an event to which members can bring their children.

Her first franchise opens in Chester in September, with another opening in Brighton later this year. It is intended that with more groups setting up around the country, they will be able to inter-react. Hillie envisages organising holidays, more weekends away and if a member moves to another area of the country, they can just get in touch with with the nearest branch of Dinner Dates. They needn't worry about things being different, however: Hillie is adamant that 'every franchise has to be a mirror image'.

Along with the success stories - six marriages and another in October - there are the events that didn't work out. Hillie's partner John related the story of a buffet lunch at which all the men sat down at one table and all the women at another. Whether this counts as a disaster or not depends on your point of view and is more a testament to the fact that for people who join Dinner Dates, finding a partner is not the be all and end all. Making friends is also important to people who perhaps only socialise with work colleagues.

By the time the main course had arrived, any remaining traces of stigma had disappeared - I found myself thinking that, were I in different circumstances, Dinner Dates would be my first port of call. And I had the proof that you can meet that special someone right in front of me.

Did I mention Hillie's partner, John? He was a client of Dinner Dates when he invited Hillie to a comedy club, after discovering they shared the same sense of humour. On finding (to their mutual surprise) how well they got on together, Hillie told John that were they to have a relationship, he could no longer be a member of Dinner Dates. He joked that it was a difficult choice, but as we watched Hillie circulating among her guests, and after hearing their reactions to the evening, he turned to me and said: 'She's a natural, a real natural.'

Dinner Dates, 8 Millers Court, Chiswick Mall, London W4 2PF (081-741 1252).

(Photograph omitted)

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