Wollongong’s sell-out Dinners With A Difference developing deeper dialogue | Region Illawarra

Wollongong’s sell-out Dinners With A Difference developing deeper dialogue | Region Illawarra
Wollongong’s sell-out Dinners With A Difference developing deeper dialogue | Region Illawarra

Participants of Dinners With A Difference during a deep discussion. Photo: Matt Houston from Ironbark Photography.

A desire for deeper conversations over wine and good food led Gretel Van Lane to try out her crazy idea on her birthday, leading to the start of the now sell-out monthly Dinners With A Difference in Wollongong.

The dinners have become so successful, Gretel is even branching into singles nights.

She said conception-based dinners weren’t new, with her idea first inspired by the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.

“I was really curious about how to create accessible, open spaces for meaningful conversations for everybody,” she said.

“So for my birthday, I thought, I’m going to try this crazy idea I have, which is creating a facilitated event where men and women can come together and talk about a meaningful topic with wine and good food.

“That was what I wanted in my life. I want more dinner parties with interesting people talking about interesting things.”

Gretel hired out a restaurant and had 28 friends come along and the feedback was: ‘That was amazing. I want more of that in my life’.

That was 2022.

Since, she’s run dinners consistently throughout 2023 and 2024, which now sell out months in advance.

“The Friendship Dinner, which is coming up in three weeks, that sold out a month ago, and Creativity, which is in July, that’s almost sold out,” she said.

“I’m blown away that people are as excited and passionate about this idea as I am.

“To see ticket sales tick up and for it to sell out tells me we’re onto something.”

Gretel is no stranger to events, having previously run women’s circles and retreats.

However, she said the feedback for the dinners showed the need for this style of event, with people stating how it was refreshing to come together with like-minded people to have meaningful discussions.

“I remember someone said, ‘I don’t know what they do for work. I don’t know their name, I have no idea where they live, but I know what their values are and I know what’s important to them,’” she said.

“That’s pretty special.

“It’s also a pretty easy and accessible space for people to come to who want to make new friends and meet new people, so we have a lot of people who come solo.”

When it comes to choosing topics, she opts for those that are meaningful to her, including crafting a good life, boundaries, obligations and privilege.

Regardless of the topic, she always created a “brave space” where people felt comfortable to speak up and deeply listen to themselves and what other people were saying.

Gretel Van Lane

Gretel Van Lane hosting one of her Dinners With A Difference. Photo: Matt Houston from Ironbark Photography.

“What I think is lacking in our society is meaningful discourse and the ability to listen to other perspectives,” she said.

“By creating a dinner where people come together in a really considered way, where we create a clear container and framework with how we disagree, with how we’re going to be listening to each other and how we respond, I’m hoping that people walk away with a deeper sense of connection to other people, an ability to listen to other perspectives and an increasing ability to sit with discomfort.

“Our society really avoids discomfort, which means we often avoid other perspectives, and we want to move on from difficult topics quickly.

“I’m hoping people become more comfortable with more honest and vulnerable conversations.”

She said what had surprised her was how people were talking with strangers, and then taking those conversations back to their family and community.

“I had one friend say that before coming to the dinners, they felt very shy about sharing anything about themselves at work,” she said.

“What they’ve noticed is as they’ve become more courageous in being more vulnerable at work, people are meeting that.

“She said she feels much more connected to the people she works with, and she’s feeling braver in her conversations, which I thought was the most delightful outcome.

“For this to have an ongoing impact in people’s lives where they feel more connected, then that’s magic.”

Despite Gretel working full-time and being a single parent with limited capacity, she is expanding to include singles nights soon.

“I’m single and I find the dating apps very exhausting,” she said.

“I wanted to find a new way for people to come together.”

And Gretel already knows there’s demand for it, with a previous singles event selling out at 45 tickets, with a further 25 on the waitlist.

“I have conversations so regularly with single people and they’re over the apps.”

She said users had to pay to gain any type of traction on dating apps, which were becoming more expensive and less responsive.

With other events having included Fab Friday, which was a dress-up event with some even donning wedding and bridesmaids’ dresses, Gretel said she was open to collaborating on events with others.

Dinners With A Difference are held monthly at Uncle Bok’s – Bar and Eatery, 1/48-50 Crown St, Wollongong. Upcoming dinners include Friendship on 13 June, Creativity on 25 July and Bittersweet on 22 August.

Source: regionillawarra.com.au

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