Tampa Bay dating scene heats up with new options for meeting someone special

The dating scene in the Tampa Bay area seems to be simmering these days as the region attracts more people -- especially singles -- from all over the globe. 

According to recent population estimates, 46 percent of the male population in Tampa is single while 38 percent of local women have yet to tie the knot -- an increase of about 5 percent for both men and women since 2008. Overall, Sperling’s Best Places reports that 35.8 percent of the population in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area is single, making the region the 18th-most “single” metropolitan area in the United States. 

Indeed, the Tampa Bay area is the place for those who are looking for love, with many locals turning to the Internet to help them find their soul mates. Cynthia Plunkett is a Tampa-area online marketing professional whose background is in studying the behaviors of dating trends and changes, and she says several new sites are seeing huge increases in users these days. 

Hinge, Happn, and Coffee Meets Bagel are the latest dating apps to hit the scene. What they all have in common is a GPS-based algorithm, so it’s attractive for users to see you’re not too far from someone to meet up,” remarks Plunkett, who once worked for the Toronto-based dating site Lavalife.

“Today, many young people have turned to free dating platforms such as Tinder and Bumble,” which are similar in that both are “hot-or-not” apps where couples are matched based on rather or not they mutually chose each other among a selection of other users. 

“Free membership always sounds good, but you often have people who are only looking for hook-ups,” she explains. “People who are willing to spend $20, $30, or $40 a month on dating sites will weed out many of the wrong people.” 

The online dating expert says several of the more established websites continue to be popular with local singles, including OKCupid, eHarmony, and Match, the latter of which reported the Tampa Bay area as its most active market. 

Online dating and its challenges

Julie Ferman, a renowned Los Angeles matchmaker who is responsible for more than 1,100 marriages and has been featured by Dr. Phil, The Today Show, and The New York Times, says the world of online dating can be helpful to finding love, but it has also contributed to the notion of finding a “perfect” mate. 

“The biggest challenge I see with today’s single men and women is wrestling with the reality that ‘the ideal partner’ is a fictitious notion, lodged in the mind, and that it’s a mistake to pass on, overlook, veto or dismiss real, live available people, especially those who are expressing interest, for silly, secondary reasons such as height, hair or age,” she says. “Apps like Tinder and Hinge are fun, but they’re contributing to the problem, in that folks are closing each other out after just a one-second impression, based primarily on one photo.”

While much of the online dating focus these days seems to be geared toward younger singles, Tampa has more singles over the age of 40 than any other U.S. city, according to Census data. Not surprisingly, Ferman sees a rise in “grown-up” singles (as she describes those who are age 50 or over) using online dating apps. 

“The stigma has decreased over the years and the fact that we all know someone who’s partnered up nicely with someone met initially online or via an app, so people are becoming more open to trying different approaches.” 

What are some other innovative ideas for meeting the love of your life? “Get registered with local matchmakers, who are always looking for stellar candidates for their current and future clients,” Ferman says. “More now than ever, matchmakers are networked together and we search for each other all the time. Also, throw your own parties and work your own magic.” 

Matchmaker Carmelia Ray, who will be featured on the new TV reality series Mom Vs. Matchmaker, on May 3, 2016, on Myx TV, says online dating is increasingly catering to an on-the-go crowd. 

“The biggest change in online dating is the fast movement of mobile dating taking over desktop dating,” Ray says. “Zoosk CEO Kelly Steckelberg announced in her keynote talk at iDate (an online dating conference held in Miami January 25-27, 2016) that her company is launching two new mobile apps this summer – one for Millennial daters and the one for ‘mature’ daters (Baby Boomers).” 

Like Ferman, Ray sees a rise in older adults hitting the Internet dating scene, a phenomenon especially significant in a state such as Florida, which has a large retiree population. 

“There is definitely more interest for singles in the 55+ category as they are faced with catching up fast and getting with the program of online dating and social media. This influence is likely encouraged by their Millennial kids or grandkids who will be the ones teaching them how to use the apps and where to go in the first place.”  

Ray has advice for anyone, young or old, who is looking for love. 

“I would always advise singles to do their research and homework when it comes to looking for what works for their individual lifestyle and dating goals. There isn’t a cookie-cutter solution to anyone’s dating situation,” she says. “Check out some dating review sites for advice or work with an online dating coach or online dating expert who can fast-track your dating success and fill you in on what works best for your situation and experience.”

Social meet-ups prove popular among singles

When it comes to dating, many Tampa Bay area singles are skipping the Internet altogether and looking to meet new people the “old-fashioned” way -- in person. Therefore, social groups are becoming increasingly popular among singles, with many joining organizations that aren’t necessarily established with the sole purpose of helping make matches between its members, but rather bringing people together as acquaintances and friends – a method that may eventually lead to love for some.

The popular Meetup offers several Tampa Bay area groups catering to a smorgasbord of interests, including astronomy, gardening, church socials, and hiking at local parks. These Meetup groups vary in demographics, and most include members from diverse backgrounds who all happen to share at least one common interest. Enterprising individuals may also choose to start their own Meetup group to meet new people who share an interest that is not already locally represented on Meetup. 

Meanwhile, one of the newest social groups in the Tampa area is New Town Connections, founded by 34-year-old Andrew Machota in August 2015. The premise of the group is bringing locals and new arrivals together in a fun, safe, and positive atmosphere. 

“We want a more comfortable setting for our members,” explains Machota. The group gets together in higher-end restaurants and bars such as Armani’s at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, Station House in St. Petersburg, and Urban Juice Company in downtown Tampa. However, get-togethers aren’t exclusively held at restaurants. “We had a social at an Orlando Magic game,” he says. “If somebody wanted to get together and do yoga, we’d find a place in Tampa to host such an event with 10+ people.” 

No matter where members of New Town Connections get together, the philosophy of the group remains the same: “It’s a social group that is designed to help people make friends.” The primary demographic of the group is young professionals generally between the ages of 25 and 40, with some members as young as 22 and others as old as 42. The membership ranks have grown from about 20 in the late summer when the group began to more than 130 today. 

Members come from many places, including Germany, Russia and Brazil, and they represent a wide range of professions, including doctors, lawyers and teachers. Machota, a certified public accountant originally from Indiana, seeks more members to join, but he isn’t looking for just anybody. 

“It’s important that we only grow with people who contribute to our positive energy,” he explains. New prospective members must be interviewed first, and many but not all will end up making the cut. Machota explains this filtering process is important because he doesn’t want his group to become a “meat market” or end up drawing individuals who aren’t willing to engage with other members or contribute their time and positive spirit to the group. 

Those who are admitted have a range of membership options, with dues as low as $49 for two social events. Machota explains that the value members get for their dues comes in making real and meaningful friendships with others in the group. 

“It turned out that two members lived right across the street from each other and didn’t even know the other until they met here,” he shares. “Seven or eight young women in the group have already been scheduling their own yoga get-togethers.” 

Machota says New Town Connections wasn’t designed with the primary intention of matchmaking, but he wouldn’t be surprised if romance blossoms among members of his fledgling group. “That’s bound to happen when you bring guys and gals together. If it happens, it happens.”

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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.