© James Boast

When I started my first job after university at a merchant bank in the City, a director asked my graduate intake to consider how we’d feel if something we did ended up being written about in the Financial Times, and I can’t help reflecting on those words ahead of sharing what follows.

But this is the article that I wish I’d read before writing a large cheque to an introduction agency.

Certainly, I can’t plead financial naiveté. Now in my 40s, after my time in the City, I worked as a dealmaker for a large, ambitious internet company in the US, before realising a long-held dream of becoming a published author. I’d graduated with a first-class degree and was in the top 10 per cent of my business school class … none of which gave me pause for thought when handing more than £6,000 to a matchmaking agency, up front, on returning to the UK after time abroad.

More than half the UK population is now single, according to the Office for National Statistics, and the largely unregulated dating industry is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Matchmaking services are emerging with increasingly adventurous fee structures — particularly in central London, which has more than its fair share of wealthy singles. The £6,000 fee I paid is at the lower end of the London introduction agency range. I heard of one charging £30,000.

Discretion and privacy are understandably sought by all involved, making it hard to get a reliable gauge of the success rate of these services before joining — or even indeed how they operate.

Wanted: life partner

My expensive dating journey began when I’d found the occupation I loved, bought a house and resettled in London, only to find the big piece of my life still missing: someone to share it with. Most of my London social set had settled into family life by the time I returned, and I knew I needed to consider other ways to meet a partner.

I soon eschewed online dating, which struck me as too time consuming and unpredictable. For years, people did not seem to know who they were meeting online, where photos and profiles could be notoriously misleading. Then, Tinder came along.

Tinder interacts with Facebook, making it more likely that you will identify others you know when dating online. This seems to work well for the “digital native” generation, but I balked at the risks of mixing my dating activities with personal or professional relations. I was drawn to the idea of a personalised service that would be discreet yet effective, so I used the web instead to search for a traditional matchmaker.

Most matchmakers I came across were clearly seeking wealthy, international clients, typically with offices in Mayfair. The one I picked appeared more down to earth, its premises located outside central London. For our first meeting, my prospective matchmaker used the Institute of Directors’ building in Pall Mall as her virtual office. She was well spoken, in her early thirties, attractive and not pushy. She’d studied art and was familiar with Jungian psychology.

Part of my brain began turning: while I hardly expected to get together with her, she would have friends like herself; people exist within tribes of similar people. She could be my “wing-woman” — that forgotten female friend at university who started magical sentences with, “You really should meet my friend…”

At our first meeting, we discussed everything you might expect: my background, the kind of person I was hoping to meet, plus the agency fees and the contract. She explained that the £6,000 really did need to be paid up front, but she could guarantee me a certain number of introductions — assuming things got that far — before I met Miss Right.

Then, a house call. My matchmaker informed me that, to get to know me, she needed to visit my home. I’d used the proceeds of stock-based remuneration from my previous job to buy a small house off the King’s Road in SW3, which met with general approval. Exactly how all this fed into the matchmaking process, I never would come to know, aside from it perhaps confirming that I was good for the fees.

Regardless, I set to work on defining Miss Right more thoroughly: “adventurous in a down to earth way … likes to travel, likes to be outdoors. Likes horses maybe. She enjoys walking, family, socialising. Yoga would be a plus; in any event she looks after herself physically …” And, “Doesn’t need to do kick-boxing in Bhutan!”

I set an age range, attached photos of women I fancied and hit Send. This wish list was declared “totally realistic, giving a very clear picture of the sort of person you’d like to meet”. Less straightforward was my attempt to get that profile memorialised in the contract somehow. Yet my matchmaker was very good at not using aggressive sales tactics. Take your time; look at other options, she advised, while emailing me teaser profiles: a pretty singer here, a striking PR lady there …

Front-loaded finances

In any other realm (finding a home, hiring a key staff member) I would never entertain paying all of the fees up front, with no part contingent on the basic delivery of the service let alone a successful outcome. However, matchmaking is different. It deals in affairs of the heart. That “someone special” is priceless, as they say. A contrarian, non-commercial streak in me embraced the romanticism of it all. Certainly I was persuaded that it would be odd, and probably indeed impossible, to pay a financial bounty upon meeting a romantic partner. What would constitute “meeting a partner” anyway? Moving in together, marriage?

None of this adequately explains why 100 per cent of the fees needed to be paid up front. Why couldn’t fees be made in monthly or quarterly instalments, so that the agency is adequately incentivised to work for its substantial payments? This was never convincingly answered, perhaps because my agency never needed to.

A feature of a confidence trick is that the target, or “mark”, willingly hands over the money. It would be unfair to call introduction services confidence tricks, but my role in the arrangement increasingly came to feel like that of the mark. Soon I was the one proffering positive feedback about ever-looser matches — anything to postpone the dawning realisation that I’d highly likely wasted my time and money. There would be no close matches — not even a short-term relationship, let alone anything serious or marriage.

One of the very first matches was the most promising: a woman working in PR, very much my type, who for six weeks demurred whenever I tried to meet. Finally, we managed a snatched coffee date, which didn’t seem to lead anywhere. But a month later, her calendar miraculously opened up. She’d been involved with another man, it transpired; now he had ended the relationship and so she was free after all. It was a false start that we wouldn’t recover from — much like the matchmaking arrangement overall.

Within six months, my matchmaker had gone on maternity leave and was replaced by two other staff members. In theory, this shouldn’t have made a difference, but in practice I didn’t get a sense that they had a good understanding of my circumstances. Before long, I asked for a partial refund and you can guess how that went. They’d fulfilled their contract, I was told. Twelve introductions, £6,000.

Only then did it occur to me that this was less than the number of introductions guaranteed at any speed dating event, and while such events aren’t for everyone, the range of people I would later meet at a “professionals” speed dating night in London for £21 was the equal of that offered by the matchmaking agency for £6,000.

One curiosity throughout these match-made dates was that I, the man, invariably felt an obligation to foot all bar and restaurant bills. This was, apparently, the norm in these higher-end dating arrangements: the male pays. Why should this be, in an era of greater gender equality? Just how unbalanced could things get on this expensive dating journey? I was about to find out.

Around the time my matchmaker went on maternity leave, an even more expensive introduction agency (which I’d spoken to briefly at the beginning) invited me to join their service for no fee. Here, a deeper truth about the way this exclusive dating world works was revealed: women significantly outnumber men at the more expensive agencies.

There are different theories as to why this is, one being that women are more willing to invest substantially in finding the right life partner, another being the perception of a depleted pool of eligible men in other walks of life. A third theory is the comfort factor of finding male dates financially “pre-qualified” in a city as expensive as London these days.

One of these dates, a woman working at a US bank, disclosed that she’d paid “18,500” (up front). My eyes widened. Unwittingly I asked whether this was pounds or dollars. It was pounds, of course; we were sitting in a Chelsea pub, not in the West Village. Her own eyes narrowed. “How much did you pay?” There was an excruciating pause as I thought how best to answer her question. Finally I offered alcohol. Champagne, that ever reliable pick-me-up. Footing drinks bills suddenly didn’t feel so onerous.

Targeting vs the comfort of crowds

Most dates were pleasant enough. Indeed, two women became friends. However, these individual introductions, staged over weeks and months, would come to feel like an agonisingly inefficient way of meeting that “someone special” when a date might involve travel across town and the answer as to whether there was a match would be clear within minutes.

Matchmakers meet clients in person for just a couple hours of their lives, and feedback given after each date does little to alter this reality. Understandably, everyone wants to put their best side forward on paper and in photos; profiles tended to be of little use ahead of dates. In exclusive dating as in life generally, much comes down to happenstance.

Far more effective for me have been events where it is possible to meet several people on the same night. The most promising of all have been activities that I enjoy doing anyway, which include literary events, yoga and travel (the Weekend FT is crammed full of suggestions for such activities, should you ever be stuck for candidates).

Rear view of young woman holding a drink looking at a man
© Getty

Online dating services such as Match.com have cottoned onto this notion by offering real world events. “The events programme was developed because we understand that our singles may have very different preferences on how they go about meeting new people,” explains Karl Gregory, Match’s UK and northern Europe managing director.

“Our events are designed to be informal and held in a relaxed and fun environment – anything from bowling to salsa dancing. It makes conversation easier as you immediately have something in common with your fellow attendees.”

Traditional matchmakers are entering the space as well. One distinctive newcomer in London is The Sloane Arranger, catering to a set that founder Lara Asprey defines as much by shared values as by type of education or physical appearance. “We wanted to create a product to appeal to those who did not want the bespoke matchmaking option,” remarks Ms Asprey.

So far, the Sloane Arranger’s events have been drinks gatherings in London private members’ clubs costing £25 a head, but they will expand this year to include dinner parties, cheese and wine tastings and ticketed sporting events — all with an eye to involving equal numbers of eligible men and women.

Other newcomers in the traditional matchmaking space have also sought to offer more flexible fees arrangements. The Picnic Project is a bespoke agency set up by Suze Cook, a former marketing manager at Microsoft, who spotted ways to improve the dating process while she was single. Fees range from £500 to £4,000.

“We offer shorter memberships to let people try the matchmaking process to see if they like it, or to hone the type of person they are looking for, before deciding whether to upgrade to a longer membership,” says Ms Cook. “This helps people to experience the service without paying a lot of money upfront.” She adds: “We are always honest with prospective members about whether we can offer them good matches and whether an annual membership is right for them. If we took a fee from every person who contacted us, then we would probably be retired by now.”

There might be some readers for whom £6,000 or even £30,000 paid up front is not an amount to be particularly missed. For everybody else, my advice would be to consider your alternatives. Think about saving those pennies for that someone special, and don’t lose faith in that person appearing through more affordable and natural events, the more so if you live life fully with an open mind. And keep your sense of humour.

Daniel Pembrey is an author and freelance features writer.

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