Sick of swiping right with the hopes of finding your romantic match?
There’s another way, but it’ll cost you. In best-case scenarios, thousands of dollars. In worst-case scenarios, your trust, self-esteem and even, as one Sydney woman discovered, your business.
Dating or introductions agencies sell themselves as high-end services, with dedicated matchmakers who’ll send you hand-picked, bespoke matches, based on extensive questionnaires and a database of “high-calibre” suitors who “won’t be seen on dating apps”.
Some unhappy customers report paying thousands of dollars for inappropriate matches. Others have claimed traditional introductions agencies are a far superior way of dating than using online apps. Some have even met their long-term partner.
Vinko Anthony co-founded Sydney dating agency Beau Brummell Introductions with his husband because “the way we are treated online is often degrading and demoralising”.
“You can’t always get it right for everyone, however we never give up … Perhaps, at times, our perception of someone’s life is different to their own,” he says.
There are dozens of matchmaking agencies across Australia in what is a largely unregulated industry. Clients can pay anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $15,000 for membership.
So for those who shell out for it, how does the bespoke experience measure up?
‘They’re all coming to me’
For some clients, the investment has been a waste of money, time and energy
When Carlee Potter, 43, joined dating agency Elite Introductions in 2019, her high expectations felt justified: She’d paid $5,000 for a year’s membership.
Owner and “millionaire matchmaker” Trudy Gilbert promised Potter, an IT consultant from Sydney, exclusive access to an “elite society of singles”.
She zoned-in on Potter’s exasperation with online dating, telling her: “Everyone’s fed up with apps like Tinder. They’re all coming to me.”
Gilbert says the agency has hundreds of happy matches.
“We are proud of our hundreds of success stories, most from people who can’t or won’t use dating apps any longer,” Gilbert says,
“Our members sometimes meet their partner on the first match whilst others take several matches over a longer period of time.”
However, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Potter.
One man Potter was introduced to said he had not been a paying member of Elite Introductions for six years.
Another introduction fulfilled few of Potter’s criteria, stated on an extensive questionnaire, and was also a lapsed member.
On the date, Potter discovered he was in between jobs and houses, the opposite of the calibre of man Gilbert had guaranteed for such a high membership price.
However, Potter felt too guilty, initially, to complain.
“Trudy was very good at making me feel unreasonable and high maintenance,” she said.
For Potter, red flags emerged early on when Gilbert charged her $1,500 for a “no obligation” consultation, but promised to knock this off the $4,995 fee, something Potter now realises was a “pushy” sales technique.
“I was on the spot, and knew I’d feel too embarrassed to tell anyone I’d paid $1,500 to learn about a service,” says Potter, who started a journal of all her interactions.
The actual amount charged was $5,125.38. Gilbert had, without flagging it, added on a “credit card fee” of $130.38.
When Potter mentioned what her dates had told her, Gilbert told her: “You cannot be asking any members about other dates. It’s tacky.” Other members have been told they would be banned if Gilbert heard of them discussing other dates.
It was at this point, Potter’s sinking feeling worsened.
“I started to think, ‘I’ve done something really stupid, parting with this much money’,” she says. “I started to feel really worried I was being scammed.”
Then she dug deeper and discovered cases where the agency had been taken to court.
The battle for a refund
In August last year, doctor Eileen Moore sought a refund of $4,995 at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribune for her claims of being sent unsuitable matches and not receiving responses from the agency after trying on several occasions.
She alleged “misleading conduct, bullying and breach of verbal contract”.
In May 2017, a Melbourne chartered accountant and charity board member sued Elite Introductions for a full refund of $5,107, after receiving an initial refund of $4,000 following a “messy dispute”.
She claimed that, in her five months of membership in 2016, there were no successful introductions, after being promised them.
She also claimed that the “couple of people outside what I specified” — that she was nevertheless willing to go on a date with — also never eventuated.
As far back as 2013, a judge at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal was granting a disgruntled client of Elite Introductions a full $4,995 refund on the evidence that “the agency had not done what it was contracted to”.
One woman, Emma*, speaking on condition of anonymity, received a partial rebate from tribunal in 2017 for non-delivery of stated service.
Dozens of women contacted her after media reporting on her tribunal claim made her look like “a privileged, fussy bimbo”, she says.
The unflattering coverage led to the destruction of her business because such negative stories instantly came up when prospective clients Googled her. This, Emma says, led to suicidal ideation and “one of the darkest periods of my life”.
“The comments on those articles still haunt me,” Emma says. “I was reduced to clickbait. I begged those journalists who came to my house not to name me, but they did, and the stories blamed me, not Trudy.”
One engagement, but nine dissatisfied
Ten women who each paid $5,000 to use Elite Introductions came forward for this story.
Their jobs include a university lecturer, a high school teacher, a PR company director, a doctor, an accountant and an IT consultant.
Most of the women said they felt embarrassed or humiliated after their use of the service.
Many said Gilbert — or her co-worker — would become defensive when asked for refunds and that they had felt “bullied”.
Tabloid journalism trashing the reputations of the women who have seen their small claims court refund request reported in the media had deterred others from coming forward.
“If your refund request makes it to court, the media is allowed to report it and, without your permission, print your name,” Emma says.
“They portray you as snobby, with ideas above your station, when really, you’re often vulnerable after negative experiences with dating online. I was made to feel pathetic and desperate.”
Allira* was matched with a man who lived in Canberra. She’s in Sydney and had asked for someone in the same city.
“I was sold the dream, but it didn’t deliver,” she tells the ABC.
“Women spend years focusing on a career and want to start a family — we’re time poor. I lost six months of my life at the end of my 30s.”
Jo* went on just one date in five months of membership.
Wendy* took out a loan from her bank because she couldn’t afford the $5,000 fee.
In six months of membership, she didn’t go on one date. Two introductions were made in that time, even though she says she was guaranteed five introductions in three months.
Both introductions fell through: one man moved to Canberra, the other ghosted her.
She lost her refund request at tribunal because Gilbert said a phone call constitutes a date.
“I was going to appeal, but I was left disheartened and embarrassed,” she says.
According to Gilbert, “only a tiny fraction” of her members have requested refunds.
“We don’t guarantee happily ever after, we do guarantee that our members will meet high-calibre, like-minded, highly compatible potential life partners.
“When people occasionally give up on our service, they often return to us later with a renewed approach and trust in the process achieving great results,” she says.
“Although we continue to improve our service, year on year, dating is a subjective experience and our hundreds of success stories say as much about the members themselves as it does for our professional approach..”
‘We have hundreds of success stories’
One client said she had “the most amazing experience” when she used Elite Introduction’s service in October 2019.
“I’d come out of a long-term relationship and was getting a bit older and had heard so many bad stories about online dating,” she says.
Mandy* says that Gilbert introduced her to her current partner, who also paid just under $5,000 to be a member. They’re now engaged to be married next year.
“He was actually my first date using the service, but he’d been on two or three dates through them before meeting me, and was getting annoyed at the matches not working out,” she says.
“Trudy did an incredible job at matching me with my now-fiancé and was so detailed in her initial interview process, which I respected hugely, and now understand why all those details were necessary to find the right person for me,” she says.
“I’d highly recommend her service to anyone looking to find their life partner.”
Mandy, from New South Wales, admits that, although her criteria were very broad, she insisted on a man aged 40+.
“I wanted a man, not a boy,” she says.
Nevertheless, Gilbert matched her with a 34-year-old. “She said, ‘Trust me — just go on this date’,” she says.
She remembers an initial aggressive sales technique.
“Trudy was chasing me for two or three months. I thought: ‘Gosh, it’s a lot of money.’ But she kept chasing me, so I met with her.”
Now Mandy says whenever she encounters single women in her client-facing job, she always says the same thing: “You’ve gotta get in touch with Trudy. I’ve sent her so many girls her way.”
One woman she sent, however, has not yet seen such results.
“My partner’s sister’s friend tried Elite after hearing our story but hasn’t had any luck. She’s been on there over a year.”
Wooed by big promises
Meanwhile, gay men who share similar frustrations over hook-up apps like Grindr also sometimes look to matchmakers for something more meaningful.
Mark*, a Sydneysider in his late 30s, has been a member of Beau Brummell Introductions for more than 18 months.
Members pay a one-off, $7,500 for a lifetime membership, or until success is achieved. Success is defined as being in a relationship for 12 months, something the agency claims 74 to 90 per cent of clients achieve.
He was initially wooed by their big promises, which assuaged his fragility after a recent break up.
“I really got sold on the vision: ‘We’ll find you your soulmate’,'” he tells the ABC. “They market themselves as being uniquely able to introduce you to the sorts of high-quality people you won’t meet anywhere else.”
Mark presumed anyone with a spare $7,000 would be “both pretty established and committed to finding a partner”.
Like many dating agencies, Beau Brummell positions itself as saving busy professionals time by matching them with highly compatible people to reduce the likelihood of them going on bad dates.
Mark says this was not his experience. Matches would decline the date or he would be sent unsuitable matches, according to his stated age or location preferences.
“They just sent you any profiles remotely in the ball-park to look like they were matching you and to keep you placated,” he says.
Mark says the men were “of a similar quality — and sometimes the exact same men” he would see on Tinder — “except I got heaps more actual dates on Tinder!”
Ultimately, he went on just one date in 18 months.
Vinko Anthony, co-founder of Beau Brummell Introductions, says his team spends “hours and hours to individually get to know our clients and filter profiles to send them suitable ones”.
“We don’t promise any number of dates. The investment is in filtering and minimising wrong dates,” he says.
“I cannot believe someone would complain about this. It’s about finding Mr Right, however long that takes. When success is achieved, I’m always everyone’s best friend … 12 years in business, I’d say we must be doing something right.”
Finding suitable dates
So how do services find matches for their clients?
Five male clients of Elite Introductions spoke about their experience being approached by the company.
David* says that Gilbert “hit him up on LinkedIn” when he was an investment banker in approximately 2012, saying he’d be a suitable match to some of the women on her books who were the “next step up from dating apps”, and enquiring after his relationship status.
Gilbert, however, refuted that she had used LinkedIn as a recruitment method as it would be “inefficient and time consuming”.
David says the pair met at a Sydney cafe where she asked him to pay the $5,000 membership fee. He baulked.
“I remember saying, ‘Woah! Absolutely not!'” he tells the ABC. “She then said, ‘OK, as there were so many women and not enough men, she’d give me a couple of introductions for free’.”
They were unfruitful. “I felt like she didn’t do much matchmaking — they were unsuitable,” he says.
Tom* had a similar experience. He didn’t attend an in-person date in six months of membership.
“There was no-one meeting my criteria,” he says. “I feel like they’re preying on vulnerable people. They take your money, promise you the world — but can’t even give you an atlas.”
Gilbert refuted the claim that some men pay nothing to be members of Elite.
“Everyone who is a member of Elite Introductions pays a fee,” she said in a written statement. “Across the year, we work hard to maintain a healthy balance of males and females on our database.”
She said Elite uses “various recruitment methods for both men and women”, including responding to a member’s request to contact a particular person on their behalf.
“A very small percentage of men and women have come to us as a reference from our members and have been introduced to our clients,” Gilbert explained.
“If those men and women prove to be highly eligible and of ‘Elite standard’, they remain on our database for consideration of future matches.”
Vinko Anthony says he’s OK with not everyone being happy with the work he does.
“Sometimes clients have higher expectations or perceptions of themselves and decline many of the profiles we send. It’s easy to blame us. Living in the world of Instagram creates many false expectations in who we’re equal or compatible with. We’re not here for fantasies, we’re here for relationships. Freud would have a field day here.”
‘How do we know if the marketing stacks up?’
Ultimately, with a service as personal as finding the love of your life, there are going to be mixed reviews, but potential clients need to go into the process with eyes wide open.
Andrew Baietta, 41, from Melbourne, last used Beau Brummell Introductions five years ago. He remains single.
“I did wonder whether there was any embellishment on their success rate,” he says.
“This is an unregulated industry — how do we know if the marketing stacks up?”
Baietta says that if he’d have been “in a better headspace” and connected with someone they introduced him with then “I think it would’ve been worth it.”
He went on “quite a few” dates but is more philosophical about his experience.
“If I’d have ended up in a relationship with the perfect person, $5,000 doesn’t seem that expensive,” he says.
“When you spend the money then don’t get the benefit, it does feel like it wasn’t worth it. But the same could be said of personal training — you pay lots of money and may or may not get results.”