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11.23.98  
Would You Pay Someone to Tell You What a Lousy Date You Are?
First Impressions teaches the "out of practice" about courting

Here's an outrageous New York dating story: This guy goes out with a woman who calls herself Susan. They meet in a café, and she seems really nice. She's into film, painting, travel, and animals -- you know. He thinks it went pretty well. Then, they go back to an office -- and she lets him know what she thinks of his dating technique for an hour and a half, and he gets a bill for $195!

"Susan" is actually a consultant for another in New York's ever-growing panoply of self-improvement services, First Impressions Inc. Neither an escort nor a dating service, First Impressions taps into the New York Zeitgeist: It sells the services of a psychology professional to hone lonely New Yorkers' courtship skills.

"New York has more single people and people living alone than anywhere else in the country, except maybe the leper colony in Hawaii," says Ann Demarais, who founded First Impressions with her partner, Valerie White, in March of 1997 with $1,500.

The two women and six other consultants, all PhDs in psychology, hail primarily from the world of executive coaching -- where, for a mere $10,000, a CEO submits to a one-on-one makeover of his or her verbal and nonverbal communication skills. "We figured everyone could learn from this, but who would pay us?" says Demarais. "We figured people with dating challenges would be the ones with the most obvious need, so we decided to design the business around dating."

DATING FOR DOLLARS. Who submits to an experience that would send most people heading for the hills? Mostly time-strapped professionals whose dates haven't come off too well or who recently ended long-term relationships. What had they been doing to improve their skills before they came to First Impressions? "They attend self-help workshops and read a lot of books," says White. Other clients are people from foreign cultures who are trying to get a fix on New York dating rituals. First Impressions' clientele is about 60% men and 40% women, who range in age from mid-20s to 60. And they're pretty affluent -- at least the men are. Most earn more than $75,000 a year, while the women's salaries start at $30,000. Why the disparity? Demarais says that's because women of any income level are more willing to invest in learning about themselves than men.

It is something of an investment. Three hours with a First Impressions consultant costs $195 -- plus the coffee or lunch. A two-hour session costs $150, but "no one bites at it," says Demarais. "People think: 'For another $50, I get another 45 minutes of discussion.'" That's a bargain compared with dating services, which can charge thousands of dollars to match clients up with potential marriage partners. On the other hand, after First Impressions, clients still have to land their own dates.

So far, the company has seen about 150 clients, averaging about four a week. The simulated dates occur primarily on weekends, because most of its clients don't have three hours to spare on weekdays. Clients first sign an agreement that states they understand the date is purely a simulation -- there will be no physical contact with the consultants or any attempt to contact them for a follow-up. The agreement also stipulates that the service is not therapy, an important distinction for liability reasons.

Clients meet one of the consultants at a discreet café in the hip Soho area. Women go out with "Nick Brown," whose passions are travel, music, and outdoor activities. Men meet "Susan Green," a fan of film, painting, travel, and animals. If you're a gay man, a gay consultant is your Nick Brown. So far, the service hasn't received calls from lesbians. But it's an option, Demarais says.

Clients find their "dates" sitting alone and reading The New York Times. The instructions are to just chat normally. After an hour, the client is to wrap it up, suggesting a future date or simply saying goodbye. The consultant then gives his or her real name and hands out a "self-reflections" form to fill out. The client pays the café bill, while the consultant heads back to the office and fills out the report. Half an hour later, they reconnoiter for an hour and a half of intensive feedback. What gets the thumbs down? Fidgeting. Readjusting your jacket every few seconds. Talking nonstop about yourself. Avoiding eye contact. And, of course, broaching the subject of a long-term relationship on the first date.

Being on the receiving end of all this anxiety sounds excruciating. But, says consultant Therese Reichert, "It's a lot of fun doing this." Few clients are completely clueless about their problems, she notes. It can get hairy, though. "I did have this one guy who is clinically paranoid, and when we got to the feedback, he got agitated," says Demarais. "We talked about that directly, you know, was he being treated for it? It turns out, he was not. He was very comfortable being paranoid. He has been paranoid a long time. It was no problem."

THE PROSPECTS. Just how big is the potential market for a dating consultancy, anyway? It's Just Lunch!, the third largest dating service in the country, conducted independent research that shows 40% of the 200 million adults in the U.S. are single, and there are 5 million singles in the New York City area alone.

Take Cynthia, a 30-year-old teacher in the New York area who asked that her last name not be used. She had gone on a couple of blind dates that seemed to go well after breaking up with her boyfriend of six years. But she never heard back from the people. So she called First Impressions after seeing an ad in New York magazine.

Cynthia says First Impressions reassured her about her dating skills. But it didn't solve her primary problem. "What I realized is that I didn't perform badly. I was still myself on dates. The hard thing is getting them," she says.

Demarais' biggest problem is generating business. "There is a little bit of a flaw in this business design," she says. "You have to spend a lot of money to get one client, and there is no repeat business." Demarais says she may advertise more. She has been approached by two movie studios, whose names she withheld. They're interested, she says, in buying the rights to First Impressions' story. Another prospect is to negotiate partnerships with some of the larger dating services.

But Nancy Kirsch, senior vice-president for It's Just Lunch!, one of the services Demarais contacted to discuss a partnership, said she doesn't see how her business could overlap with First Impressions. "The best way to practice is to be on a real date," says Kirsch. "You can be rehearsed. But at some level, I think it is a little unnatural, and it takes a little bit of fun out of dating."

Demarais says she hopes dating consultancies will become mainstream some day. "Your emotional life, your romantic life, this is a lot of what happiness is about," says Demarais. "If there is something you could do to be better, why not?" Who knows? Maybe money can buy you love.
 

By Jeremy Quittner in New York
jeremy_quittner@businessweek.com

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