Upstart dating service has a unique approach

February 24, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

It might seem like a big leap from tropical plant huckster to professional matchmaker, but for Joe Luery, there are similar considerations to making a go of either business.

For one, you have to keep in mind that "people are looking for perfection," he says.

And whether it's paying for a fancy ficus tree for an office or a night on the town with Prince Charming, people today are "very cost conscious," he says.

Mr. Luery has tried to keep both principals in mind in launching his new venture, a matchmaker service for heterosexual adults named -- no joke -- The Hunt Club.

"What I'm doing is offering a service that addresses a very primary need for most people -- the need for a compatible mate. We all want perfect matches in our lives," he says.

Of course, there's lots of competition, including well-established dating or "introduction" franchises such as Together, which has eight offices in Maryland, and Great Expectations, which has two offices in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Mr. Luery's upstart strategy against the old guard competition: Gear the service to women, keep fees comparatively low and screen clients for compatibility before a match is arranged.

The Ellicott City resident says he set up his matching system so that female clients, dubbed "foxes" by The Hunt Club, don't pay any fees. Men, or "hounds" as they are dubbed in the company's promotional materials, pay all the fees -- a $50 annual membership charge and $75 for a matched date.

Executives of Great Expectations and Together, two of the nation's largest introduction services, say Mr. Luery's company's reputation is unknown, and they question his system of charging only men for the service.

"In this day and age, it doesn't sound very fair to be charging the men and not the women for the service," says Ray Walker, Washington-Baltimore region franchise owner of Great Expectations.

He also argues that The Hunt Club's low fee structure doesn't eliminate people with less than honorable intentions.

"The fee for our service is kind of high," says Mr. Walker, "but it serves to eliminate the riff-raff."

Date-seekers in the Washington-Baltimore area pay $1,200 to $1,700 to join Great Expectations and have access to their video library. Together clients buy packages of dates, ranging from five to an unlimited number, for $1,000 and up.

Mr. Luery, 45 and single, responds that his service "is absolutely discriminatory toward men. It's skewed to attract women. Unless we have a broad base of women in the pool, the service will not be viable."

As for weeding out people through high fees, Mr. Luery says, "Riff-raff comes in all income levels. So far, I've been very impressed with the people who have signed up. They seem more educated than the general population."

He believes the Baltimore-Washington area has the potential to be very lucrative ground for his service. He projects making 175 paid matches a month by the end of this year and says that if he markets his service right, The Hunt Club could be making 9,000 paid matches a year in four to five years.

That may seem high. But it's about the same number of people in the region who currently belong to a pool of mate-seekers in Together or Great Expectations.

Together says it has about 10,000 members. Great Expectations estimates it has about 12,000 in the region.

For now, though, Mr. Luery is focused on landing that first paid match.

To build a pool of date- and mate-seekers, he has been advertising in the Baltimore and Washington editions of The City Paper, which he believes is widely read by his target market of professional men and women, age 22 to 50. He's also been offering clients a free first match.

"We've done some matches, but haven't had our first paid one yet," he says.

So far, he's drummed up a small pool of about 80 men, but his service has a noticeable lack of women. About 60 are in the pool. Those odds make it tough to match all the men, who would generate the service's revenues.

However, women in the pool have pretty good odds of finding a compatible date, even if he might not be Prince Charming.

Pattie Gerlach, marketing director for The Hunt Club, says she's not certain why more women haven't sought the club's services. She surmises that "women are more reluctant than men to take a risk."

But Libby Lucas, Together's director of marketing and public relations in the Baltimore-Washington region, says Mr. Luery probably is encountering some of the "buyer beware" skepticism routinely faced by the matchmaker industry.

"There have been some fly-by-night dating services, which hurts the established good ones. But there are also many good, small introduction services," says Ms. Lucas.

"I hope he succeeds. The more successful legitimate services we have, the more credibility the industry as a whole will have."

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