Written for LA Times

Matchmakers’ personal touch thrives despite EHarmony, Match.com

Internet dating sites were supposed put traditional matchmakers out of business. Instead, the matchmaking business has grown.

Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times

February 14, 2010

What would you pay to meet the love of your life? Twenty dollars a month for an Internet dating site that lets you wade knee-deep into the dating pool and swim with millions of other singles? Or $1,000-plus for a personalized matchmaker who will do the wading, and weeding, for you?

Over the last few years, a surprising number of singles have been choosing the latter, despite the declining economy. Turned off by Internet dating sites that offer a vast selection but take a lot of time, they’re spending bigger bucks for more service that leaves the date-picking to someone else.

"Matchmaking should have been dead by now," said Mark Brooks of Online Personals Watch, a website that’s been tracking Internet dating of all kinds since 2004.

Instead, the opposite has happened, he said. Matchmakers not only have survived but are thriving, having been aided and legitimized by the entity that was supposed to have killed them off – the Internet.

Like social networking, which had many dating industry experts inaccurately predicting the demise of paid Internet dating sites, Internet dating hasn’t killed matchmaking, but fed it. In fact, the three go hand in hand, leading relationship-minded singles to ever higher levels of paid service.

Though social networking sites such as Facebook may bring people together and do it for free, there’s no guarantee that those brought-together people are available and looking for a relationship. And though Internet dating sites such as Yahoo Personals do a better job of bringing together singles who are motivated to get together because they are paying to find dates, they don’t always do a good job of sorting out the serious from the players, or even to help individuals select people who are truly good for them.

Personalized matchmakers promise to do just that. Of course, they also charge a higher price – anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000, depending on the exclusivity of the service, the number of matches they’ve said they’ll provide and how willing they are to go the extra mile.

"You’re the therapist, the mother, the best friend, the sister, the nonsexual girlfriend. You have to be everything," said Patti Stanger, star of the Bravo reality TV series "The Millionaire Matchmaker" and proprietor of the L.A.-based Millionaire’s Club matchmaking service.

"It’s not good enough to say, ‘Here’s a nice girl.’ You get them a girl, they’ll sleep with that girl, cheat on the girl. Then I’ve got to get that girl back. I have to go in and do an intervention and be on call seven days a week. That’s why I get the big bucks," said Stanger, who charges men a minimum of $25,000 a year and female "millionairesses" $55,000 for 28 months of unlimited introductions. (She finds her female clients take longer to match.)

Whether it’s hooking up her clients with a personal stylist to improve their appearance or enrolling them in an improv class to get over their shyness, "there are 5 million things to do," she said. There are more details to attend to with clients: manners, appearance, expectations. "In the old days, it was, ‘OK. I know who I’m going to give you. Here she is. Bye.’ "

There are two ways to work with a matchmaker. There are the clients who pay for introductions to potential partners and the people with whom those clients are paired. In many cases, the potential partners pay nothing, having joined the matchmaker’s network for free after electronically submitting photos and personal information through a website. Equipped with an extensive database of singles, the matchmaker then peruses the possibilities to determine who might be a match and calls in good prospects for one-on-one interviews that help to further hone the pairing in hopes of a click.

Then comes the big unknown: chemistry. A couple could look perfect together on paper, but they can’t know until they’re face to face.

Eight years ago, an actress (who asked to remain anonymous because of what she believes is lingering social stigma) went on a date through a matchmaking service for the first time. At the time, the then-38-year-old woman thought getting set up through a matchmaker "was crazy" but worth giving a try because she "was never very good at going to Starbucks and seeing the cute guy across the room and smiling."

After talking on the phone for 2 1/2 hours, the two agreed to meet for dinner. "There was an immediate click for me," she said.

Four and a half months later, they were engaged. Eleven months later, they were married. They now have two kids and are getting ready to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary.

That actress, it turns out, was part of the first marriage put together by April Beyer, founder of the 11-year-old, L.A. and San Francisco matchmaking service Beyer & Co. Working with 10 to 15 "very special bachelors" per year, each of whom pays her $40,000, Beyer’s talents have since paid off in an additional 29 "I Do’s," a track record she attributes to understanding what a client needs, not just providing what he says he wants – like a significantly younger woman.

"A lot of times, a man doesn’t know to ask for the woman I give him," Beyer said. "Matchmakers are not computers. Hopefully our clients are giving us the freedom to be creative and have a bit more latitude."

That’s a very different idea from many Internet dating sites, which can’t verify all the information provided by their members and which match people based on self-selected criteria, allowing singles to choose their own partners, for better or worse. But increasingly, Internet dating is bringing in a matchmaking component.

In late 2008, Match.com expanded its hunt-and-peck model with a service called the Daily 5, delivering "five matches based on our prediction of which two people would most want to engage in a conversation together," said Match.com Chief Executive Greg Blatt. In December, the site added yet another matchmaking feature called Singled Out, for "when we have a match with a stronger likelihood of connecting and want to highlight that to our users," Blatt said.

"A lot of people put their relationships on the wrong course because they select the wrong people," said Gian Gonzaga, senior director of research and development for Pasadena-based EHarmony. "A lot of the things that are powerful forces for initial attraction are different from what makes a relationship successful."

According to Gonzaga, attraction is important because it gets people into a relationship, but it’s the similarities between individuals that keep them together and lead to more satisfying relationships. It’s that philosophy that’s shaped EHarmony’s extensive member questionnaire and given EHarmony its reputation as the most matchmaker-like of Internet dating services.

If dating is, indeed, a numbers game, then Internet dating sites have the edge. But matchmakers have gut instincts. And for many singles, especially those with more money than time, or more discriminating criteria, or those who, for various reasons, would rather not post a photo online for the entire world to see, that’s even better.

"Women are very attracted to the concept because it’s private. They can’t be browsed," said Julie Ferman, founder of Cupid’s Coach in Westlake Village, a matchmaking service that charges $2,500 to $25,000 annually for an average of 2.2 introductions per month and takes both women and men as paying clients.

Matchmaking is strongest among thirty-, forty- and fiftysomethings, according to Fermin. Her average client splits the difference at a median age of 46 and makes at least $50,000.

"If you’re having a hard time making rent or saving for your kid’s college education, I’m the first one to tell someone, ‘Don’t hire a personal matchmaker,’ " Fermin said.

But if they do have money, Fermin is confident she can help. In 14 years, she says she’s formed the beginnings of more than 144 marriages.

Not everyone’s a believer.

"What smooth James Bond character with a great personal image is going to write a check to meet somebody?" asked L.A.-based dating coach David Wygant. "These men are looking for women they’ve never been able to get in their lives. They want the 27- to 31-year-old even though they’re 46 to 65. And the women, they can tell you they’re in it for love, but they’re looking for guys with money. This is not love. It’s a gold digger looking for a guy that wants eye candy."

"Nothing is better than opening your eyes and flirting with the people in front of you," Wygant said. "People need to get out of fantasyland and think somebody else is going to do it for them."

That is, of course, easier said than done. And the thousands of singles using hundreds of matchmakers – ELove, It’s Just Lunch, the Millionaire’s Club – seem to prove it.