THE LOVE BUSINESS: Lonesome tonight? After being written off for years as the last resort of losers, the dating agency business is thriving. Matthew Gwyther finds that using a paid matchmaker - human or electronic - to find a mate is the new natural selec

THE LOVE BUSINESS: Lonesome tonight? After being written off for years as the last resort of losers, the dating agency business is thriving. Matthew Gwyther finds that using a paid matchmaker - human or electronic - to find a mate is the new natural selec

by MATTHEW GWYTHER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

You can't hurry it. And once in it, you never have to say you're sorry. It's like a red, red rose. But is it true that money can't buy you love in the first place? Absolutely not, is the reply from the British dating and introductions industry, which has seen huge growth over the past 10 years. The stigma of paying a commercial organisation to help select a soulmate is gradually easing.

So the attractive, slim blonde/guy who WLTM a N/S with a GSOH for a LTR is increasingly less bashful about employing a third party to help in the hunt. Agency membership is now even offered by a few enlightened companies as a perk to add to the company car and private health insurance. And now, in the first two months of the new year, is when the dating agencies are at their most frantic as new customers flood in, promising themselves that never again will they endure the loneliness of the festive season as a singleton.

Hard research on the love business is thin on the ground. To be known as a user of a dating agency is to risk having 'loser' tattooed across your forehead (men are especially reticent when it comes to owning up).

However, since 1992 the number of dating agencies in Britain has increased from 150 to nearly 700, and specialist operations abound - Plump Partners, Socialist Partners, Vegetarian Matchmakers, Russian Brides Cyber Guide, Kids No Object, and even Natural Friends for those who are 'organically sound and spiritually aware'.

The rise of the net has contributed hugely to the proliferation of agencies.

The web is a perfect medium for speedy sifting of human data and rapid creation of on-line relationships, not all of them strictly healthy or above board. Individuals reveal more about themselves more quickly over the net than they do face-to-face.

Professor Richard Scase of Kent University reckons that about one in five single Britons - 2 million or so people - use dating agencies to find a partner. He expects that number to double over the next five years. The Tomorrow Project, a report forecasting 2020 lifestyles and boasting a foreword by Tony Blair, predicts even better times ahead for those who bring relief to lonely hearts.

The Reverend Dr Michael Moynagh, one of its authors, says: 'Dating agencies will definitely become more popular. These will rely on psychological profiling, as used in recruitment, and extensive databases to provide a better fit between prospective parents. This may enable couples to stay together longer and divorce rates could fall.' He is quick to deny that this removes the romance from the process of selecting a mate: 'People will be more romantic, more quickly, because even though they have not known each other long, they will just click.'

Why is this happening now? A variety of demographic and economic elements are at work here. First, people are working harder and longer hours, so have less time to engage in the hunt for a mate. Second, women are marrying later and no longer do so through economic necessity. They do not need a man to keep them, so a good deal more consumer choice in mate selection takes place than did 100 or even 40 years ago. But this means that some women are leaving it ever later to have children and then need to move fast as their reproductive clock winds down.

Third, the UK has one of the highest divorce rates in the world (more than half the British marriages celebrated this year are doomed to failure).

Thus, many people are trying to get something together a second time around and may be a good deal more choosy in order to avoid another emotionally and financially expensive mistake. And, finally, although work is still where most Britons find their partner, there is a marked reluctance in many business organisations to bless the unions between employees who work under the same roof. The old days where you went to work at the office or the factory and made eyes at your future spouse across a crowded canteen are on the way out.

Although the number of agencies has increased dramatically, a word of caution comes from one of the doyennes of the industry in the UK. Mary Balfour is the founder of Drawing Down the Moon, one of the most exclusive introduction agencies, aptly situated in Adam and Eve Mews in London's Kensington. She does not think her business should be regarded as the next get-rich-quick wheeze for budding entrepreneurs looking for a new niche to exploit. 'Ninety five per cent of those who start up come a cropper before very long,' she warns. 'You need to have excellent people and business skills, and not just be after a quick buck.'

The downfall of most fledgling dating agency businesses is a huge surfeit of women in their late 30s and early 40s who pay their membership fees and then find themselves unable to find a mate because men in their 30s, 40s and 50s invariably go after younger women. To be successful you have to keep the mix right: there is a 'biological clock glut' of 37- to 42-year-old women and, at the other end of the age scale, too many men in their 20s.

This means that DDTM is quite harsh when it comes to selecting its clients, taking on as prospects only about 20% of initial enquiries. 'We just can't take on loners and losers,' says Andy Maccabe, who is in charge of business development. 'We just would not be able to give them the minimum number of introductions.' (The most common male request, apparently, is for 'six-feet-tall blonde doctors'.)

So 95% of DDTM's 1,500 members are graduates and many have further or higher degrees. Ten per cent, mainly academics and nurses, are on 'modest salaries', but the largest single group is management consultants, and a handful of clients feature on the Sunday Times Rich List. (Teachers, incidentally, top the list of professions that use dating agencies.) And you need to be reasonably solvent to join: the minimum fee is pounds 695 for the 'Classic' membership and up to pounds 7,000 for a personal Love Headhunter (DDTM has 30 members on its books with their own matchmaker).

Two of DDTM's satisfied customers are Michael Burch, 37, and Sue Spenceley Burch, 42. As their names suggest, they are now married. 'I'd been married before,' says Michael, the MD of a fabrics company, 'and had a new job in a new town, so found that I didn't have much of a social life. Friends had tried getting me together with women at dinner parties, but that creates its own pressure because you don't know anything about the person beforehand. It can take three or four months going out with someone before you discover you have very little in common. Sue wasn't the first person I met, but we got on and realised that the match seemed good relatively quickly.'

'I tend to steer my life,' says Sue, who has a senior job in PR. 'I'd been going solo for about a year and had not come across anybody that interesting. So I went to DDTM and made a few selections by looking through their profile lists. They were very helpful and personal, and took a great interest in finding out about me. For example, they said they didn't think I'd get on with one man I picked out. I went out with seven or eight who were great fun, but nobody did the chemistry. Then I met Michael. People think that it's so unromantic, but that's quite wrong. It was still a fairytale, but somehow more pragmatic.

'It makes so much sense. Just hoping you'll meet the right person in a pub or at work seems to leave so much to chance. You wouldn't leave anything else in life that is so important to fate, would you? It would be interesting to compare the divorce rates of those who have met through introduction agencies and those who meet by more conventional methods.' To complete the pragmatic fairytale, the couple are expecting their first child this month.

DDTM is a small private business. OneSaturday plc, however, was listed on AIM last August. Within the holding organisation are three separate brands, ranging from the old faithful Dateline for the masses, through the mid-market Elite to Club Sirius, which aims at 'intelligent, professional business people'. Club Sirius membership costs pounds 699 and every member is interviewed in their home - as was Margaret Cook, the ex-wife of the foreign secretary. This interview helps accuracy because, as OneSaturday chief operating officer Conrad Morris admits: 'It's amazing how many men claim they're six feet four when in fact they are five-two.'

A voluble American who used to work for the World Bank, Sirius' director Kate Corbett wants her industry to be taken seriously.

'We've got real faith in our idea, which is healthy and honest,' she says.

'We're a completely bona fide business.'

She is no nanny, however. 'We are not a marriage bureau. We believe that people need to make their own choices when choosing partners. Certainly the attitude of a few is 'Can you wrap her up and ship her to me?', but that is completely unreal.'

Sirius has a web site in which it posts enticing details of its gorgeous guys and girls (you cannot get access to them without paying), its own magazine, associated singles' holidays and group activities, plus an IVR (interactive voice response) system that enables members to exchange messages but maintain their privacy as they do so.

One of the most high-tech of the on-line agencies is U-Date, which is listed in California, although physically based in more down-to-earth Derby. Its founder Mel Morris had a long career in IT at Wang and ICL, and U-Date is a rare dot.com in that it is making good money. In January Morris took dollars 500,000 in subscriptions, and he reckons to have a 10% conversion rate between those who take advantage of the free trial and those who go on to pay for the service.

'The only carrot we have is an important one,' he says, 'the knowledge that someone out there is looking to meet them.' The average age of a U-Date user is 33, but Morris knows that the 100 other pieces of demographic information he has about his clients and his ability to use keyword-targeted advertising is the key to success.

Datingdirect.com is another new on-line company. 'At the beginning of 1999, I was just coming out of a long-term relationship myself,' says founder and CEO Darren Richards. 'I looked at all the American offerings. They were pretty awful, with people using names like SexyPants and Lucy69. We wanted to do something that had the seriousness of off-line services but was on the net.' With a claimed 120,000 members, datingdirect now claims to be the largest dating service in the country and Richards even found himself a new live-in lover on his own site.

Sadly, such a happy outcome was not available to John Patterson. The true father of the UK introductions industry, Patterson was the founder of Dateline back in 1966, a business that made him a fortune estimated at pounds 8 million. (The idea came from a visit to Harvard, where he noticed that students used a computer to match couples for a freshman's ball.) But Patterson was unlucky in love and his personal life was reported as being 'tempestuous'. With a divorce and failure of a LTR behind him, he died a recluse and chronic alcoholic in 1997.

However, he never ceased defending his industry, even once advocating that it should be a social service funded by the government. 'The search for a perfect mate is as old as the hills,' he once said. 'Dateline isn't about inadequacy, it's about humanity.'

LOVE IS IN THE ETHER

Drawing Down the Moon is on 0207 937 6263 or www.drawingdownthemoon.co.uk

Its associated free web site is www.loveandfriends.com

www.udate.com - the high-tech matchmakers from Derby

Sirius is at www.clubsirius.com or on 0800 542 3000

Other sites include www.personals365.com, www.virtuallydating.com and even snogg.net

There are two dating agency trade organisations:

The Association of British Introduction Agencies, www.abia.org.uk

The Introduction Services Federation, www.i-s-f.co.uk

www.suzylamplugh.org contains important advice about the security aspects of net dating.

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