TARGETING HIGH-INCOME singles IN SEARCH OF ROMANCE

IS hELPING mATCHMAKER DEBRA WINKLER BOOST REVENUE

AND FEND OFF COMPETITION FROM INTERNET sERVICES

Just as e-commerce is proving a major challenge for brick-and-mortar retailers, online dating services have quickly become a popular alternative to traditional matchmaking.

In response, some old-fashioned dating services are focusing on market niches considered beyond the reach of the newfangled Internet competition.

In Beverly Hills, Debra Winkler Personal Services is targeting the upper echelon of single professionals with a division known as "Special Search." Clients are frequently multimillionaires who no longer have to work for a living and are looking for a partner to share a life of leisure.

"We go outside our existing database to find people in the real world who fit the requirements of our clients," said founder and chief executive Debra Winkler. "For example, we will attend social functions around Los Angeles and invite people we think are a good match to come in for an interview."

Since its launch in 1998, the service has been a key factor in the growth of the company, which saw revenue jump from $1.9 million in 1998 to $2.5 million in 1999, according to Winkler.

Other services target the not-so-rich. Fees can total a few thousand dollars for clients who want to arrange several dates through the firm's database of about 5,000 members.

That's quite a bit more than the $12 to $20 a month that most Internet dating services charge. But Winkler doesn't seem too concerned about the low-cost competition.

"The Internet is more like the personal ads used to be," she said. "The problem is that you don't know anything about these people, and you're totally on your own trying to figure that out. Our clients come to us because they want the personal service, not because they want the anonymity of the Internet."

Sometimes that personal touch can save a lot of heartache. Craig Donaldson, company president, recalls how one former client thought she had found love online.

"She had been courted by a gentleman from England for six months, and she was ready to move to England and marry this man," Donaldson said. "Then she got a message from him saying he was married and that she couldn't come."

Socially acceptable

In recent years, the use of matchmaking services has grown rapidly. One reason has been the proliferation and popularity of online dating services, which have helped break down the stigma once attached to the practice.

"It now has become normal to join a matchmaking service," said Sherry Singer of Meet-a-Mate, a traditional L.A.-based matchmaking business. "It used to be a taboo, and people would think you're a loser, but that's no longer so."

Another reason for the growth has been the increasingly hectic pace of careers. Many single professionals are working harder than ever and have little or no time left to go out and meet people.

"There are about 90 million single people in the U.S.," said Trish McDermott, vice president of romance with Match.com, a subsidiary of Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch Inc. in Pasadena. "People are marrying later in life, when they have demanding careers, not when they are in college and have most access to other single individuals. Furthermore, most people can't or don't want to date colleagues at work, and dating services provide a solution to their lack of access to other singles."

Match.com has registered more than 3 million members so far, and each week another 38,000 new members sign up, according to McDermott.

Common-sense advice

By comparison, Winkler has a much smaller client base that she believes is more selective because of her relatively high fees. Indeed, people who use Winkler's service tend to be professionals with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

Along with potential matches, clients also get coaching for their dates, including such common-sense advice as making sure to show up on time and not to spend the evening talking about their divorce.

Moreover, after a first date, both parties are debriefed to determine what they liked or didn't like about the person they were hooked up with. The process helps Winkler find more suitable matches if the date didn't work, while letting clients discover what they might be doing wrong.

"Normally what happens is you go on a date with someone and they never call you back, or the guy or the girl won't return your call," said Winkler. "But you don't know why. Here, you have an opportunity to get feedback if there's anything you're doing that's preventing you from connecting with the other person."

Winkler's service does not guarantee success it will only guarantee a certain number of introductions over a period of time. But marriages are not uncommon.

Lauri and Doug Fitz-Simmons met through the service six years ago, when she was 29 and he was 31. They recently had their first baby.

"I had just gotten out of a bad relationship and I knew that if I was left up to my own devices, I would never have met the right person," said Lauri Fitz-Simmons.

DEBRA WINKLER PERSONAL SERVICES

Year Founded: 1991

Core Business: Personalized matchmaking services for

professionals

Revenues in 1998: $1.9 million

Revenues in 1999: $2.5 million

Revenues in 2000: $2.8 million (projected)

Employees in 1998: 25

Employees in 2000: 25

Goal: To further expand personal services for wealthy clients

while expanding its overall database of 5,000 members

Driving Force: Time constraints faced by busy professionals

trying to find romance

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