In an era of online networking and dating apps, it’s refreshing to see the rise of a new face-to-face business and social networking event taking Cape Town’s professional LGBTI community by storm. And it’s headed to Joburg next.
Conversations is a monthly networking and social event for male and female gay professionals at different venues in the Mother City. It provides upmarket, friendly and informal environments, away from noisy gay bars and clubs, in which to mingle, network, socialise and make new friends with like-minded people.
Conversations has been running for just over a year. Its British-born creator Andrew Howard hosted the eleventh event at The Rockwell Hotel in De Waterkant last month, attracting around 80 people.
Forty-one-year-old Howard, who has a background working for NGOs in the UK, moved to Cape Town to join his South African boyfriend. That’s when he came up with the idea for Conversations.
“I used to attend a similar monthly event in London. In Cape Town, I asked a few of my new gay friends if there was a regular social and networking event for gay men and women in the city, and the answer was no. So, there was a niche for an event such as Conversations,” he explains
Howard says that with the increasing use of technology, the art of human-to-human conversation is dying. “In the context of the gay community, many men largely rely on faceless interaction via social media outlets more than on face-to-face communication.”
He insists, however, that the best “social and business networks are formed, maintained and strengthened through face-to-face conversation.”
Conversations events are not only an opportunity to meet new people and make business contacts but also to help out a good cause. At each event, attendees pay a door charge of R120. After paying off the event’s costs, the remainder goes to a charity.
Andrew Howard (far right) hands over a cheque to the Pride Shelter Trust
The first eight events raised R19,000 (including a donation from the Glen Boutique Hotel in Sea Point) for the Pride Shelter Trust, which provides accommodation for LGBTI people in times of crisis. Since June, the events have been raising funds for Goedgedacht, which supports disadvantaged rural children and communities.
Howard says that while Conversations is aimed at LGBTI professionals, he won’t define a “professional” person. “Many different people can be ‘professional’ in many walks of life and types of work. So, anyone is welcome at my events, as long as they are over 18. Gay-friendly straight people are also welcome,” he adds.
While Conversations attracts a predominantly (but not exclusively) white, male and middle-class crowd, Howard aims to diversify the range of guests. He plans to start bringing more people from outside the City Bowl by providing transportation to and from the events.
“I really think by doing this, I can take Conversations to the next level, building links between two LGBTI communities that really don’t mix; for a range of reasons, but, as far as I’m concerned, not insurmountable reasons,” he says.
Howard also wants to break down the barriers between gay men and lesbians. “Just because we are not going to sleep with each other doesn’t mean we can’t stand in one room together and talk about other stuff!”
So is Conversations a professional networking opportunity or is it just another way for people to hook up?
“I did make clear at the first event that Conversations is not a dating service. But if two guys, for example, meet at an event, fancy each other and start dating, fantastic. I can’t, and wouldn’t want to stop people from checking each other out at the events – that’s human nature, after all,” says Howard.
“The events are whatever people want to make of them. I do think most people just come to socialise, but others want to do that and also network for business,” he adds.
To bolster the business aspect of Conversations, he maintains a database of attendees which he mails out after each event. It’s a great way to make business contacts even if you missed an event or two, he explains.
Conversations is now set to expand to Joburg. Details of the first event are still to be announced, but Howard is hoping to launch the up-country edition sometime in November.
“I think Conversations could really take off in Joburg. There are a lot of LGBTI people living there, and in Pretoria, and I’m always told that people in Joburg are more social than those in Cape Town. Also, Conversations could potentially raise a lot of money for charities there,” he says.
“I think many will be grateful to have a regular event at which they can meet new people face-to-face and have regular conversations that don’t involve asking ‘Are you top or bottom?’ Not everyone wants to do that.”
The next Conversations Cape Town event will take place on Tuesday 30 September at Mondiall Kitchen & Bar at the V&A Waterfront. Join the Cape Town Facebook page or the Joburg page to stay up to do date on future events.