Lynn Marks was tired of dating men with commitment issues. She had just gotten out of a three-year relationship and wanted to meet someone new. But online dating scared her, and she was apprehensive about dating her friends' friends. And, at 50, Marks, who lives and works as a saleswoman in Penn Valley, wasn't interested in the Philadelphia bar scene, an environment she said promoted looks over personality.
Finally, a friend referred her to Great Date Now, a matchmaking company with 10 offices along the East Coast, including one in Philadelphia. After dates with two men, Marks found a winner with the third. He too lived on the Main Line, was interested in fitness, and was a fellow entrepreneur. In short, he was exactly what Marks was looking for.
Marks is part of a rising trend of people who are shutting off their computers and turning to professional matchmaking companies for help finding Mr. (or Ms.) right. In the last five years, Premier Match, another matchmaking company with an office in Philadelphia, has seen its Philly-based clientele almost double, from about 1,000 clients in 2003 to nearly 2,000 in 2008.
Matchmaking, said Premier Match owner Christie Nightingale, is "recession-proof."
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"You go on Yahoo, and all you see is that we are in an economic crisis," Nightingale said. "But we are on target for record sales. Normally we average 20 to 25 new clients a month." By the third week of October, the office had signed up 40 clients for the month.
Still, for such an old profession, not much has changed. The Fiddler on the Roof version of a matchmaker, or shadchan, has set up singles in the Jewish community for centuries - and still does. While there's no official shadchan in Philadelphia's small Orthodox community, Debbie Unger and her husband, Rabbi Moshe Unger, serve as unofficial matchmakers in their Elkins Park temple, the Etz Chaim Center.
"I do it because it's a mitzvah, a good deed, and because it makes people happy," Debbie Unger said. "God is the one who made the match; I was the representative who put them together."
Acting as the welcome wagon to the young singles of her temple, Unger matches people with similar goals and spirituality.
And so it goes with dating services. Whether it's similar goals, spirituality, hobbies or hair color, whoever you're looking for, he or she will be found - at a price.
Premier Match offers yearlong contracts that start at $4,500 but go as high as $50,000, said Nightingale. For Great Date Now, the range is between $600 and $10,000, said owner Gary Ferone. Some companies charge based on the number of introductions and some charge one rate that covers a certain time span, but usually the cost is determined by the amount of time, energy and resources a search requires.
At Marks' first meeting, the matchmakers asked her basic information about her previous relationships and the type of men she was interested in dating. Great Date Now ran a background check on Marks, as they do with all their clients, and set up a more intensive interview.
"The matchmakers there are wonderful girls, detail-oriented and enthusiastic," Marks said. "They made the process seem so exciting."
Shortly afterward, they contacted Marks with her first match. He was "right on target" for Marks, but they didn't click, partly because he was interested in dating a brunette, not a blonde like Marks. She also liked the second man she was set up with, but he lived a bit too far away, in northern New Jersey.
Online dating sites have huge databases of singles to choose from and are generally low-cost. But sifting through e-mails and date requests can soon become a full-time job. Also, not only can people misrepresent themselves online, but anyone - including coworkers and exes - can view your profile.
Ferone started Great Date Now after his experience using Match.com. He knows online dating can be successful - he met his wife seven years ago on Match - but he remembers meeting women who lied about their age and who weren't interested in long-term relationships.
"When I was online, I had to kiss a lot of frogs before I met my wife," said Ferone, who noted that 85 percent of his clients have tried online dating first. "Great Date Now is for people who don't want to be professional daters."
Nightingale of Premier Match matches people based on intuition, details about a client's lifestyle, and a client's energy levels. Because the matchmakers get to know their clients so well, said Nightingale, they are able to pair people with someone they might not be interested in had they been using an online service.
For example, most matchmaking companies - Great Date Now and Premier Match included - avoid showing clients photographs of potential matches.
"You can't determine someone's energy level through a snapshot," Nightingale said.
"About 50 to 60 percent of the marriages we have arranged wouldn't have happened if people had seen pictures first," Ferone said. "Sixty-five percent of the relationships we arrange were 180 degrees the opposite of what people said they were looking for when they walk in the front door. That may be the reason why people aren't in relationships yet."
It's certainly not for lack of desire. Three out of four people who use Great Date Now say they want to be in long-term, monogamous relationships. And in September, nine couples that met through Great Date Now's 10 offices got married.
"Even though the economy is tight, I don't think that the interest in matchmaking will go away," said Kathryn Nischella of Great Date Now. "Finding someone to share your life with is really important."