At least one industry's flush: Matchmaking

Christie Nightingale of Premier Match says those still working are exhaust- ed and want to outsource their mate search; the jobless are able to make finding a companion their priority.
Christie Nightingale of Premier Match says those still working are exhaust- ed and want to outsource their mate search; the jobless are able to make finding a companion their priority.

Reaching out in tough times.

Posted: August 05, 2009

Though thinner wallets might make flowers, rings, and fancy dinners tougher to afford, the sour economy seems to have set the stage for misery's perfect antidote: company.

And the industry dedicated to making matches is getting a lot of love.

Premier Match, a service with offices in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, has signed up nearly double the number of new clients this year compared with the same time period in 2008, according to its owner Christie Nightingale.

Dating site Match.com now has more than 20 million members, a figure that grows by 60,000 daily. At Butler County-based CatholicMatch.com, the company has seen steady growth during the recession and even a spike last September when unemployment rates hit the highest level in five years.

The rise in dating is no paradox, said various industry members. Nightingale, for one, thinks the correlation boils down to two things: Those still working are working exhausted and are ready to outsource their search for companionship. And the unemployed, with new time on their hands, are able to make finding a mate their priority - despite a sizable price tag. The cost of a full-year membership at Premier Match starts around $5,500 and guarantees 10 to 12 introductions.

"As far as business is concerned, we're still rockin' and rollin'," said Nightingale, who has signed up between 32 and 47 new clients each month since October. "I keep thinking we'll feel [the recession] eventually, but we just haven't."

Yet for the first time in the company's 10-year existence, some of Premier Match's 2,000 Philadelphia clients are asking for a payment plan.

"In that respect, we've been more creative when they're a bit more budget-conscious, but they're still willing to make the investment," Nightingale said.

That's a result of a need for support and traditional family values in a time of insecurity, said CatholicMatch.com founder Brian Barcaro.

In this recession, his Web site is "attracting singles who seek partners to pray with, commiserate with, and split the bill," said Barcaro, whose company has 200,000 users and caters to Roman Catholic singles searching for love, friendship, and marriage. A one-month subscription costs $25, three months is $50, and six months is $75.

According to Forrester Research Inc., online dating is the third largest producer of revenue among all paid-content Web sites, generating $957 million in 2008, a figure the firm predicts will grow 10 percent by 2013. (Video games are No. 1, digital music No. 2.) Match.com charges members $35 per month and brought in $366 million in 2008, a 5 percent increase from 2007.

Searching for companionship during tough times makes sense from a psychological standpoint, said Diane Marsh, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.

"The recession is marked by a sense of anxiety. People are gloomy, depressed, and anxious, and research certainly indicates that under those circumstances, social support is enormously important."

But there are perks when the unemployment rate is the worst in 20 years: Women are more accepting of jobless men - granted, of course, that the guy has the goods to find another position.

Back in late 2007 at the beginning of the recession, Nightingale had several unemployed male clients she was pitching as prospectives. "The women seemed a lot more stubborn about even considering a guy that was looking for a job," she said. "But now it's like, 'Yeah, I get it. I know we're in a bad situation. I'll meet him.' "

Brian and Rebeka Seelinger of Erie know firsthand just how hearts can flutter as the economy flounders.

In April 2008, Rebeka - then Miss Alpern - was in search of a "real gentleman with old-fashioned values and behaviors" but found the dating process tedious, frustrating, and time-consuming. And with the faltering economy, Alpern, a busy lawyer, couldn't afford to waste time on dates that went nowhere.

She turned to the Modern Matchmaker in Pittsburgh to do the screening. By the end of her first consultation, she already had several potential matches, including Seelinger.

On the pair's first date at a theater production of The Wedding Singer, sparks flew. The couple got engaged in July and married in February in Hawaii.

Though the Modern Matchmaker charges $1,250 for a six-month package - far pricier than just dating independently - Seelinger saw the service as a recession-friendly option. "In the long run, that's really a bargain," she said. "It's priceless, since you're investing in your future."

Of course, after the cost of a matchmaking service, someone still has to pay for the dates. A few unsuccessful meetings for dinner and drinks and you may have dropped $300 to $400. Nightingale has noticed more men asking how to come up with unique date ideas that are less expensive. She recommends going to galleries or the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Friday-night "Art After 5" gatherings.

Susan Dunhoff, president of the Modern Matchmaker, thinks it's no coincidence that her company is busier than ever, with 500 clients. During hard times, people "want to feel satisfied with one aspect of their life and think, 'At least my personal life is going right.' "

But dating is just one facet of the search for social support in lean times.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, couples are more likely to stay together in times of need than in plenty. The number of divorces and annulments dropped by 16,000 from 2006 to 2007, a decline of 2 percent.

The desire for a loving escape from the tough economy isn't restricted to the real world. U.S. retail sales for Harlequin Enterprises, a publisher of romance fiction, rose 9 percent in 2008 compared to flat sales in the four years prior to that.

The rise of romance could owe as much to finances as to the need for companionship: It's less expensive to have a partner than to be single. "Two single people paying rent would certainly be better off living together," said psychology professor Marsh, who cites skyrocketing cohabitation rates as evidence of how economics influences behavior. "Though that's probably not the best reason to get married."


Style & Soul editor Cathy Rubin contributed to this article.

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