Kathy Walton profiles a woman who says ‘may I introduce…’ more often than most people
Everyone knows how ghastly it is to walk into a party and feel you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t know anyone. If you’re lucky, you might catch someone’s eye and get chatting, but what if he or she keeps peering over your shoulder to see who else is there? And how do you survive the dinner party where the people either side of you treat the evening as a networking event and zone in on other guests whom they think will be useful to them, leaving you to play with your cutlery?
Social media convinces us that it is easier than ever to make connections, yet so often we come away from real-life functions without hitting it off with anyone, without even talking to anyone. You could be at a wedding, a school reunion or a conference and still feel lonely in a crowded room.
If you have ever been in this position, don’t despair. Help is at hand in the shape of Rachel Fay, this country’s first – and, thus far, only – professional introducer. For a fee, she will oil the wheels of any event, ensuring that like-minded guests mingle and get to meet one another.
Fay, 58, who lives in Chiswick, and has one adult son, grew up in Chorleywood and attended St Helen’s School in Northwood. For nearly a decade, she has been making it her mission to bring people together – one handshake at a time – with the aim of creating “an atmosphere where people feel they belong.”
The idea of becoming a professional introducer (she stresses that she is not a romantic matchmaker) first came to her more than ten years ago, attending functions with her then husband.
“His company would put on events for clients and during my 15 year marriage, I began to notice that people just weren’t mingling like they used to, because they weren’t being introduced properly and I thought ‘aha…’.”
Following her divorce, she admits to feeling something of “a spare part” herself, when she should have been enjoying life.
“I got so frustrated, I was going to functions and I couldn’t meet others. I came away feeling depressed… it was such a waste of time when a party is supposed to be fun.”
Where many women might have given up and stayed at home, Fay seized her ‘aha’ moment and turned it into a business. Not naturally gregarious (she rarely hosts herself), she remembered how her late mother, Patricia Fay, used her networking skills to found the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (now the Arts Society) in 1965. What began as an idea on her kitchen table became a successful national network. “I saw my mother’s ability to make really good connections,” observes Fay. “She realised that she had to meet the right people to get where she wanted to go.”
These days, Fay’s assignments often involve working from her own kitchen table, where she will write down guests’ names and gradually see connections emerging. She’s a former qualitative market researcher, so undoubtedly uses some of the same skills when considering good matches among guests she’ll be introducing. After all, it’s quality, not quantity that counts. Her style of introduction varies depending on the type and size of event, but wherever she is operating, she aims to be discreet, courteous, sensitive and well-targeted.
“I might look up people’s social media profile, or their Who’s Who entry and maybe do some research on their company,” she explains, although she says, surprisingly, that she really only needs two pieces of information to effect worthwhile introductions. “For a business event, I need to know what the guests do, and at a party, I might need to know what they love – fishing, say.”
Her favourite events are those where the guests are willing to join in and are open to mingling. “Then you get a knock-on effect. They see me as the lead introducer and by some curious alchemy, they start to do the same.”
This all sounds like common sense, but Fay says that the art of hosting has all but died. More women in the workplace, who no longer host at home, is one reason. The other, she believes, is that despite spending a great deal of time and money on the catering, many hosts think the socialising just happens.
“The trouble with many events is that there is no functioning host in sight, the guests don’t know the house rules or if it’s alright to go up to someone and introduce themselves. The food and champagne may be fantastic, but the raison d’être of a party is to be social – and I see it as my role to bring that back.”
She honed her skills by writing to directors of all sorts of organisations and asking if she could attend their functions, incognito. Literally hundreds of events followed, where she would watch how people were interacting – or weren’t.
Her observations have paid off, especially at functions where she isn’t given a guest list and has to wing it – and whenever she feels the need to extricate a guest from the attentions of a bore.
“People are very frightened of getting stuck, but you can always tell by the expression on their face or by their body language, for instance, if they are standing at a distance [from the other person] or with their feet pointing outwards. Then I intervene and introduce myself and say ‘I’d like you to come and meet so and so’ and I will say to the other person, ‘I will come back to you in a moment,’ which is really critical. Or I will take them both to meet another group.”
Sometimes a host will announce Fay as the official introducer; at other events she simply approaches people and asks if they would like to meet a particular person. Even at weddings or funerals, she is always up front and never pretends to be an old friend. Most people, she says, are delighted and intrigued by her role. “A few people are slightly startled, but no one’s ever told me to push off,” she says.
Fay has also been lucky in that, early on, her talents came to the attention of royal party planner Lady Elizabeth Anson, which led, indirectly, to a commission to introduce 200 guests at Queen Charlotte’s coming-out ball for débutantes (“enormously complicated”), and, most prestigiously, at the 2011 re-opening of the Watts Gallery in Guildford by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
Palace protocol requires that guests are introduced in small groups, so Fay was asked to tutor them beforehand in how to talk to the royal couple, after which it was her job to work the room of some 80 VIP guests, introducing each group in turn to Charles or Camilla. Not everyone understood the system…
“There were eight groups inside and two in the garden and it was all arranged what they would say. But when I came back in from the garden, one group had disappeared into the café and the royals were about to come in. I had to rush out and get them back.”
Discretion being the better part of the business, no doubt the royals had no idea what tricks Fay was pulling off.
This article forst appeared in Optima Magazine on 3 November 2017