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"Can you believe I get paid for this, drinking tea and talking about love all day long?"
Almost seven years after launching her own matchmaking business, Lisa Clampitt is still amazed at her good fortune. And why not? Her two-person shop--called VIP Life--pulls in up to $20,000 a year per client helping people who are looking for love in all the wrong places.
Clampitt, 42, is one of 1,300 independent matchmakers in the US and co-founder of the Matchmaking Institute, which trains aspiring matchmakers and sets quality standards. With total estimated sales of $236 million in 2005, matchmakers are increasingly cashing in on customers disillusioned with impersonal online dating sites that have seen subscriber-growth rates ebb in recent years, according to Nate Elliott, an analyst at Jupiter Research.
Credit matchmaking's success to what Clampitt and her ilk offer that dating sites don't: face-to-face coaching on how to choose the right certain someone--and how to keep him or her coming back for more.
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The counseling happens in Clampitt's "calming station," a walled-off sitting room within her office in Manhattan's trendy Flatiron District. Here, clients can sip tequila, vodka or even schnapps from a nearby bar, while reclining on lush couches with velvet, leopard-print cushions and listening to light classical music. Striking but tasteful photographs of women donning sexy fishnet stockings and lingerie (gifts from a grateful client) adorn the walls. A bowl of red and silver Hershey's kisses rests on the glass table in the center of the room.
Clampitt was a social worker for 13 years before getting into the love game. Matchmaking had always come natural to her, she says: "So many of my friends are married and have kids because of me meddling in their lives." And so, armed with deep listening skills, expressive brown eyes and a powerful do-gooder streak, Clampitt launched VIP Life in 2000.
Like many of her clients, Clampitt at first tried to take on too much too soon. "A lot of mistakes were made," she admits. "I overspent on throwing [mixer] events, I had too many clients and a huge staff." She also undercharged, asking just $10,000 for a year's worth of service.
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Seven years later, Clampitt has ironed out the kinks. These days she only takes on 15 to 20 clients at a time. All are men, mainly in their 30's and 40's, with good jobs at companies like UBS and Lehman Brothers. Three months of unlimited introductions costs $5,000; six months, $10,000; a whole year's worth, $20,000. (If a client happens to meet the love of his life at the grocery store the day after he writes the check, sorry Charlie--no refunds.)
Clampitt spends practically nothing on advertising, relying solely on her existing network to spread the word. Still, she manages to haul in some $250,000 in sales a year. Her biggest overhead costs are the rent on her 1,400-square-foot office and her assistant, Robert, who answers the phones and books appointments.
Clampitt only works with men because, she says, it's easier to focus on just one side of the dating game. Meanwhile, her office is littered with over 1,000 profiles of women--from bankers and doctors to models and artists, all of whom Clampitt has met personally--ready to meet her men.
But VIP Life isn't just a dating service. Rather, Clampitt aims to sell a more holistic approach to finding love. Call it private banking versus stock-jockeying. "When men come in to meet with me, they often have a clear idea of what they want and, three months later, they may end up with something totally different," she says. "They have no idea who they'll fall in love with. It's a process."
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That process begins with an in-depth chat in Clampitt's calming station. During a recent two-hour interview, she scribbled notes onto her five-page client profile, asking questions about parents, religion, hometowns and past relationships--specifically, why they failed. Sitting on her couch, chomping on chocolate, the conversation feels almost cathartic, like therapy.
Over time, Lisa the broker morphs into Lisa the love coach, self-esteem booster and even empathetic sister. After each first date, she checks in with both sides to see how things went, offering constructive criticism where needed. (And is it ever needed!) The reality checks are sometimes hard to take, but her clients keep coming back.
"I'm a little tired of telling her she's right all the time, but it's true," says David, a 46-year-old attorney who signed on with Clampitt after divorcing his wife of 15 years. Today, David is in a happy, long-term relationship, though not through VIP. Still, he says, the investment was worth every penny: "If I met Dana before, I'd have been skeptical. [With Lisa] I changed. I became more open-minded and more comfortable."
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