The 'boutique' dating agency promised I'd meet eligible high-flyers… All I got was an IT worker in an anorak called Terry!
When Alex Fontaine joined an upmarket dating agency, she was looking forward to meeting the man of her dreams.
Like an increasing number of career women who find themselves single in their 40s, Ms Fontaine decided she needed expert help to find a husband.
Having tried internet dating and found it too hit-and-miss, she turned to one of the new breed of ‘boutique’ dating clubs, promising a bespoke service for busy high-flyers.
Trusting in fate: Alex Fontaine who has given up on dating after her recent experience
The businesswoman was happy to pay a hefty joining fee of 690 – in addition to a monthly subscription of 90 – because she was promised dates with only the most eligible men.
The company, Elect Club, claimed to have the ‘largest private database of single professionals in London’, including business leaders and entrepreneurs. On its website, it boasted of being ‘the number one dating agency in the UK’ with branches in several major cities.
Pictures of beautiful girls chatting with handsome men in suits featured alongside testimonials from a company director, a derivatives trader, a financial adviser and an actress.
‘Elect Club is an exclusive social network for attractive, dynamic, eligible professionals looking for a serious relationship,’ it said. ‘We have set the standard in discreet, selective and personalised introductions.’
The firm, or ‘niche introduction agency for attractive professionals’ as it described itself, even offered a special service for the over-40s and the company boasted it had been featured in glossy magazines including Grazia and Cosmopolitan.
Elect's website where the company boasted of being 'the number one dating agency in the UK' with branches in several major cities
It also claimed that all its consultants, as staff were called, were trained in neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP – a psychotherapy technique based on the connection between neurological processes and language – and this technique was used when potential members were interviewed.
Impressed by this apparently rigorous approach, Ms Fontaine, 44, rang up to enquire about joining and a consultant invited her to an interview, not at the company’s registered offices in the City of London but at the Charing Cross Hotel on The Strand.
‘I thought it was a bit strange but was quite happy because it was on my way home,’ says Ms Fontaine. They met at 5pm in the upstairs bar and spent an hour and a half talking about what she wanted in a partner.
‘She asked a lot of questions and listened very intently so I thought yes, this must be the NLP. She asked me where I saw myself in two years’ time and I said married.
‘I asked her about the sort of men they had on their books and she told me she had two men immediately in mind for me. One was called Wayne, the other Tim. I asked specifically if these men were looking for a quick fling or a long-term relationship and she said, “If they’re paying upwards of 500 for membership, then they’re looking for a relationship.” ’
Reassured by this, Ms Fontaine agreed to join. She was sent an email with the terms and conditions and transferred her membership fee into the company’s bank account.
She then enquired about meeting Tim but was told that he was now in a relationship and had come off their books. But there was some good news. Wayne wanted to meet her. She was given his email address and sent him a message. But she heard nothing back.
‘I rang to ask what had happened and they said Wayne had been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour.’
They emailed her some more details, for a man with a Persian-sounding name, who was 56 and worked in financial investments. A strange email exchange ensued in which he informed her in pidgin English that while he was ‘very happy and excited to meet a person of such attractive profile’, he was ‘only a novice in the single life’. In further emails, she found out that he had only been divorced for two months. An internet search turned up the equally worrying fact that he had recently changed his name and that several of his companies had been fined.
She says: ‘Alarm bells were ringing now. I started to suspect they hadn’t got enough men on their books.’
Like an increasing number of career women who find themselves single in their 40s, Ms Fontaine decided she needed expert help to find a husband
But when Ms Fontaine rang to complain, Elect informed her that they had received a complaint about her, from the Persian gentleman.
‘They said I had asked questions that were too personal. All I had asked was where he worked and how long he had been divorced.’
Feeling seriously offended, Ms Fontaine decided to ignore Elect Club’s demands for her to set up a direct debit. ‘I didn’t want to give them my bank details. I was planning to get out before I had to pay any more money.’
She was offered another introduction, this time to an IT worker called Terry, who was in his 50s and from Pinner. She says: ‘I thought I had better play ball and go along on at least one date, otherwise they would say I hadn’t tried.’
''He went on about his boating holiday on the Thames… I prefer St Tropez'
They met at Sloane Square, in Chelsea, where Terry emerged from the Underground station wearing an anorak and carrying a rucksack. He informed her that although he did have a car, he couldn’t afford to run it. He was hardly the City slicker Elect were promising.
Ms Fontaine says: ‘Poor Terry. He was such a nice guy, a really decent bloke, but it was a total mismatch.
‘He kept going on about his boating holiday on the Thames. I prefer St Tropez. As we walked down the King’s Road, me with my designer handbag and Terry with his rucksack, I just thought, “So much for the neuro- linguistic programming.” ’
But there was worse to come. Over pizza, Ms Fontaine discovered that Terry wasn’t a paying member of Elect. ‘He said he had had a call from them inviting him to come to some events. He had been a member of a dating agency in Gerrard’s Cross in Buckinghamshire that had shut down and Elect had bought it. They had taken its members on to their books.
‘Most of them can’t even have been based in London. It meant that I was being sent to meet people who were a million miles from what I had been promised.’
When Ms Fontaine emailed to complain, she received an email back from Daniel Andre, the CEO of the company, saying: ‘Each of our members have specific criteria and their requirement doesn’t especially match your profile, I am afraid.
‘Your profile has been sent to different male members but they have not accepted to be matched with you.’
Looking for love: Many women are turning to one of the new breed of 'boutique' dating clubs, promising a bespoke service for busy high-flyers
Ms Fontaine decided she wanted her money back. Unfortunately, Elect decided she owed them two months’ membership. Ms Fontaine, who was awarded an MBE in 2007 for her charitable work, is now being chased by a debt-collection agency for outstanding fees. ‘The thought of coming home to find my flat being stripped by bailiffs has certainly taken the sparkle out of any romantic ideas,’ she says.
Elect Club says Ms Fontaine did not cancel her contract properly by giving one month’s notice and so owes them 180 for work they continued to do on her behalf.
Lisa Guennifa, associate director of Elect, said: ‘Alex was super-eager to be matched. If you are 25 you can have two dates a week ,but when you are in your 40s with specific requirements it is more difficult.’
She insisted that Terry was vetted by an Elect agent after they bought the dating agency he belonged to.
Asked whether she accepted that while he may have paid another less upmarket agency a fee, that was not the same thing as having paid to join Elect, Ms Guennifa said: ‘We don’t judge people on their assets.’
'Some agencies walk the streets signing men up for free to fill their books'
She refused to say how many men Elect had on their books but added: ‘We could have 1,000 members and 999 of them are not going to be suitable for Alex.’
This seemed a bit harsh. I showed a picture and CV of Ms Fontaine to another leading dating agency and the opinion was that it ought to be relatively easy to find her dates.
Ms Guennifa said: ‘The thing with dating is, we don’t provide a tangible product. It can be quite hit- and-miss.’
But what of Elect Club’s claim to be ‘the number one dating agency in the UK’ On what did they base this
‘It’s based on the number of offices we have,’ said Ms Guennifa.
According to the website, Elect has branches in Manchester, Leeds, London, Bristol, Brighton and soon Edinburgh and Glasgow.
But Ms Guennifa admitted that these are not branches as such, but franchises, sold to ambitious young entrepreneurs who want to set up an agency in their local area under the Elect brand.
I asked if she could produce any successfully matched couples and she said she had heard of one wedding recently and she also knew of a female member who had just had a baby.
Why were their stories not on the website, I asked
‘I don’t personally take credit for successful relationships between two people,’ she said. ‘I have messed up relationships myself and that wasn’t the fault of the friend who made the introduction. Equally, if I am introduced to my partner by a friend I’m not going to be grateful to her for the rest of my life.’
I also asked about NLP and if Elect consultants really used this technique when they attempted to match-make. If so, I wanted to know where and for how long were they trained.
Ms Guennifa said she and other consultants had undertaken a four-month home course with a company whose name she could not recall – ‘it was called Infinite something’ – culminating in two weeks’ study at the London School of Economics, where they sat an examination. When I rang the LSE, they said they had never heard of such a course.
Pressed on how NLP might make them more expert in matchmaking, Ms Guennifa said: ‘I’m not saying it makes us any better. It’s not a selling point, it’s just something I’ve done that means something to me.’
Watchdogs say the problem of highly priced matchmaking firms promising big then not delivering is escalating as the industry expands to meet demand from a growing number of affluent single women.
One industry insider said: ‘Some of these agencies have been known to walk the streets looking for men to sign up for free to make it look as if their books are full.’
An increasing number of firms have little or no expertise and do not belong to the industry’s official trade body, which demands minimum membership numbers.
Karen Mooney, press officer for the Association of British Introduction Agencies (ABIA), said: ‘People should check before they sign up to any dating agency to make sure it is a member of ABIA, which has a strict code of practice.’
Elect is not a member of ABIA.
Ms Mooney, who founded Sara Eden Personal Introductions in 1988, said: ‘Companies love to boast that they can do matchmaking but a dating agency is a complicated business. You need a lot of members on your books and clearly some of these firms simply do not have the numbers.’
The Government is currently looking at ways to regulate matchmaking, with a possible clampdown on automatic subscription re-billing.
Meanwhile, Ms Fontaine says she is returning to more traditional dating methods.
‘I’m going back to good, old- fashioned fate. Hopefully my shining knight is around the corner and once I stop running in circles we will meet.’
For a list of ABIA-approved agencies, go to abia.org.uk.