Click on the banner to search  the newspaper's archives

Matchmakers seek love and money

By Donna Porstner
The Washington Times

July 20, 1998

Looking for Love, '90s style

Natasha Spivack

On the cover: Natasha Spivack (foreground) who runs Encounters International, matched Oliver Beale of Fort Washington with Irena Shumilova of Moscow.The couple will be married on Saturday.


Dating services flourish in area.

Georgetown matchmaker Ann Wood keeps a computerized list of more than 100 companies that tried to break into the Washington, DC area dating business over the past 10 years.

"They come and go," said the woman who has been in the business for a dozen years. Only six out of 13 dating and matchmaking services listed in last year's District Yellow Pages still have working phone numbers.

Many of the companies lured by the apparent demand for matches among the large number of singles in the region are finding competition is tough and keeping customers happy can be tougher. Despite the failings, dating industry players contend the singles' market is a booming business. Ms. Wood said the dating industry is benefiting because companies increasingly discourage dating between employees, and married couples seldom hold dinner parties to set up their single friends.

"You know who our biggest competition is?" asked Nancy Kirsch, vice president of the It's Just Lunch dating service. "People's mothers"

Carol Scott, the BaltimoreWashington area director for Together Dating, said she has seen the company's national membership grow to more than 300,000 as the often-sullied image of dating services has improved. "The difference in public perception is phenomenal," she said.

Fertile ground

The number of singles in the region is a key to the growth some companies are achieving. With more than 240,000 singles, the District has 12 percent more than the national average, according to the US Census Bureau.

The companies trying to cash in on those singles vary from traditional matchmakers such as Ms. Wood, who works by herself in a homey office with a kitchen and a cat roaming about, to national video-dating services like Great Expectations, with its corporate office suites in Vienna, Va.

And although most of the privately owned companies won't discuss their revenues, there is clearly a large amount of money changing hands in the dating business.

The largest dating service in the nation, Together Dating, has 10,000 customers in the Baltimore-Washington area - all of whom are paying $1,500 to 5,000 for an undisclosed number of matches.

It's Just Lunch - a national dating service with offices in Baltimore and the District - made $10 million last year, and the company expects that number to double in 1998. For a one-year membership fee of $750 to $1,000, about 80 matchmakers of "directors" in 25 offices arrange one-on-one lunches for busy professional people. Andre McGinty founded the service six years ago in Chicago with a $6,000 investment.

A new player in the dating scene, Renee Kostick, 30, of Alexandria, is also finding that singles hungry for love - and a meal - make good customers. Her alternative to the traditional couple dating scenario, Dinner at 8, was born last October with only eight clients and a $4,000 investment. For a $100 fee plus a price of the two meals, the minimum required at at sing-up, Ms. Kostick sent up her clients at dinner parties of four men and four women at area restaurants like the District's West End Cafe or B. Smiths at Union Station. It has since expanded to 300 clients in District and neighboring suburbs. Ms. Kostick holds an average of four to six dinner parties a month and the company's success has prompted her to set a goal of six per week by her company's first anniversary in November.

And there appears to be enough business to go around. Both Ms. Wood, a former newspaper reporter, and matchmaker Leora Orgel, a former lawyer who runs Leora & Associates in Bethesda, exchanged careers for full-time matchmaking.

While the money is attractive, Ms. Kirsch warns would-be entrepreneurs: "This is a really growing industry," she said. But, "If people go into it for the money, it's the wrong reason. You need to like to make people happy."

But do they work?

Evaluating how well the services work is difficult because each company defines success in its own way, ranging from the number of second dates to the number of marriages that result.

Only one service boasts a 100 percent success rate. Encounters International, which matches Russian women with U.S. men, guarantees nuptials within a year of membership or clients get their $1850 fee back. After five years, the Bethesda company boasts 114 marriages and 57 pending engagements, according to owner and founder Natasha Spivack.

Two of her clients, Oliver Beale, 59 of Fort Washington and Irena Shumilova, 30 of Moscow will be married at an open house held at the service's offices on Saturday.

Mr.Beale said Encounters International made this third marriage for both of them possible.

"I'm very shy, so it was a necessity that I join an agency," he said. "I would never approach a woman for her name and phone number - I've never done that in my life"

Since 1992, It's Just Lunch has made 4,000 to 5,000 clients happy - all the way to altar. With a District presence for the past five years, Ms. Kirsch said 61 marriages have resulted from these lunch meetings locally.

Who's who.

Five dating industry executives you need in your Rolodex

Natasha Spivack

President and founder, Encounters International Inc. , Bethesda

Resume: Russian language lecturer, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1985-94; above position since 1993

Member: Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington

Greatest Business Accomplishment: From a small Bethesda-based local company, in five years EI became a leader in personalized international matchmaking, with 200 happy couples living in 31 states of the United States, the Virgin and Marshall islands, and clients from as far as Japan, the United Kingdom, Finland and Canada. On-line database, EI client-exchange electronic bulletin board and annual Open House events allow clients and couples to feel connected and belonging to one extended family.

On the record: "EI is the only service in the matchmaking industry which guarantees clients' engagement within one year. EI's success rate is close to 100 percent and its divorce rate -- 115 marriages and four divorces only -- beats the national average in most countries."

You can reach me at: 301-530-7759,,

Encounters International
Phone: (301) 530-7759
Fax: (301) 789-2508