Meetup.com is helping Hongkongers with shared interests get together
Meetup.com puts people with a common interest in touch for friendship - and maybe a little romance, says Charley Lanyon
I don't fit the profile of a thirty-something with a full head of wavy hair, deep blue eyes, the body of a pro athlete, nor do I enjoy paying HK$1,000 for a bottle of champagne."
From the self-deprecating way freelance consultant Bill Neuguth describes himself you'd expect a shy, awkward man. But on Tuesday nights in the basement of the Hong Kong Brew House he is brash and gregarious, greeting people as they arrive, flirting, his booming voice filling the room.
Neuguth knows everybody's name. At the weekly Hong Kong Eclectic Movie Night get-together he founded he is in his element - he owns the room.
Neuguth is one of a growing number of people who are turning to Meetup.com in search of some social, and often romantic, fulfilment, which is often hard to find in Hong Kong.
"I didn't know about [Meetup before coming to Hong Kong]. This is a big city full of so many people who you never meet because it's so impersonal. Hong Kong is just too fast, too cold; there is no opening to be social."
It's bizarre to hear him talk like this surrounded by smiling friends. It's clear that for Neuguth, Meetup.com changed everything.
The Meetup website works on the premise that people want to hang out with others who have similar interests.
You just enter your area on the website and a list of Meetup groups comes up. Entering Hong Kong elicits a myriad of groups including The Hong Kong Lazy Group, an atheist group, hiking Meetups, language exchanges, groups for extreme sports enthusiasts, and many more.
With a few rare exceptions, attending a Meetup group is free, and you can join as many as you like with no obligation to attend. Meetup.com runs on nominal fees charged to the organisers of the get-togethers: there is no fee to join and no penalty for dropping out.
To say the model has been successful is an understatement. Meetup was started by entrepreneur Scott Heiferman in New York in early 2002 after he was inspired by the way people came together after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then it has ballooned; 15.92 million people now use the site, and at any moment there are more than 2,000 meetups happening around the world.
Hong Kong has been slow to catch on to the Meetup craze and its early adopters were mainly those who used the service while living abroad. Angie Palmer, an aspiring actress working in public relations, discovered the site while working in Columbus, in the US state of Ohio.
"I was having trouble meeting friends and finding people with the same interests when one of my American friends said, 'Oh, you should look at Meetup.com .' He said you could find anything you want: people who want to hike together, people who want to drink wine together, people who want to eat vegetarian and vegan together. I looked it up."
Palmer's interests were not mainstream, "I was looking for independent filmmakers and I was also looking for vegans because I know that being vegan was very difficult without a support system, and friends who want to eat out together."
Meetup helped her find friends who shared her passions.
She knew being a vegan would be even harder to sustain in Hong Kong, so when she returned here she went straight to the site, where she found one of Hong Kong's most successful and best organised Meetup groups, Meat Free Mondays.
Shara Ng set up Meat Free Mondays five years ago, and its concept is simple: every week Ng chooses a new vegetarian or vegan restaurant. Every Monday the group goes for dinner. "When I established this, just a few people came and every time they introduced it to more people and it spread. Now we have more than 1,700 group members. Usually, around 30 come to each dinner."
Ng discovered Meetup six years ago when she visited Tokyo. She describes herself as "proudly green", but didn't know where to go for a vegetarian meal. She googled vegetarians in Tokyo, and found a Meetup group.
The experience was more than she could have hoped for: "When you're alone travelling and you find a Meetup group, you immediately merge into the country. You will have a lot of friends, no matter what group you are in."
Wanting to replicate her experience in Tokyo, Ng started her own vegetarian group when she returned to Hong Kong.
As Meetup.com gains popularity, more and more Hongkongers are using it as a platform for their businesses.
Victor Lo is the founder of The Mixing Bowl, a home-based business that offers baking classes to adults and children. The classes are given in his home kitchen. Lo started promoting The Mixing Bowl on Facebook, but soon discovered Meetup.com
"It has been a great way to promote our classes and expand our following," says Lo. In fact, they now have over 200 followers - although not all have attended a class. Like many of the Meetup users we spoke to, Lo stresses that the site is unique in the way it brings diverse groups of people together under the banner of a shared interest. "The best thing about Meetup is the variety of people that you meet through the events. We have met so many interesting people from all walks of life, and we always have great discussions at our classes."
But he echoes the view of many, that "Meetup users are mostly expats, or people with overseas experience. But local users are increasing."
Socially, Hong Kong can be a place in which groups of people tend not to mingle too much across ethnic, socio-economic, and professional lines. Every group organiser we spoke to said these barriers are breaking down, and Meetup.com is accelerating the process.
"I did not think local Hong Kong people would use Meetup that much, because people are generally quite shy about meeting strangers in Chinese culture," says Lo, "But I think that's changing. I am in several tennis meetups, and have met lots of friendly local people. That's what Meetup is about, bringing people with the same interests together," he adds.
For Lo, Meetup.com has been so successful that he is expanding his business into a bricks-and-mortar coffee shop, with an open kitchen to host baking classes.
" Meetup.com has been great for a start-up business like us. It has generated business for us, and helped us grow."
It is impossible to discuss Meetup.com without talking about its role as a dating platform. Singles meetup groups abound, and may be the most popular type of group of all.
But members who have found luck in love through get-togethers agree it is because Meetup.com is not a dating site that it such a good place to meet fellow singles.
There is none of the pressure or awkwardness associated with dating sites and events, and meetups bring people together who share similar interests beyond just looking for romance.
"The factors that make me attractive are intellect, personality, sense of humour and worldliness. These are traits that are hard to display in the superficial club scene, or on dating websites," says Neuguth, "This requires a sculpted and relaxed environment where a common interest can bring you together."
He speaks from experience: "Of the ladies I've dated in Hong Kong, most of them I've met via meetup groups. In my first two years here, I couldn't find any ladies with the attributes that I was looking for. In the four years since, I've met many women who have become friends, compatriots, and more."
Still, he cautions against viewing Meetup.com as just another dating site.
"The dating meetups are great, but don't overlook the activity based meetups, where you can casually encounter interesting people. Sometimes that can blossom into something much more profound."