Since its launch last December Members has acquired some 1,400 members from all over the country, attracted by a vigorous advertising campaign in a range of publications: from Sky magazine, targeted at people in their twenties, to the Oldie; from Company and Esquire to Gay Times; and from the Independent and Guardian to various local papers.
That approach immediately points to one of the things that is different about this organisation: its clients represent a wide cross-section of people, both in age and lifestyle. You won't be turned away if you are fat, fifty and female, or a callow 20-year- old youth; and there are enough members in both categories to ensure that nobody tries to match one with the other. Nor do you have to be a brain surgeon or television personality - and you certainly don't have to be rich: to join costs just pounds 25.
This is how it works. You fill out the inevitable questionnaire, with details about yourself and the person you would like to meet: age, height and weight, sexuality (straight, bisexual, gay/lesbian), occupation, appearance (for example boyish, rugged, feminine, fashionable - and don't tick all four), personality (affectionate? ambitious? honest? moody?), and interests (sport, music, literature, pubs and so on).
Crucially - and controversially, since many agencies insist that clients must be looking for a long-term, serious relationship - you then answer the question 'What are you looking for?', choosing from 'friendship', 'casual relationship', 'serious relationship', 'penfriends' and 'as it happens'.
The last of these is the most popular, as it happens, along with 'serious relationship', but Mr Hoffman is adamant that it is both honest and realistic to give people the chance to nominate a casual relationship. 'Most people are looking for a long-term relationship but some want to make new friends without getting seriously involved,' he says. 'Not everyone who goes to an agency wants marriage or a long-term partnership and it is dishonest to pretend that they do. People should have the choice.'
He suggests that the 'as it happens' option most closely reflects the 'traditional' ways of meeting people: when we meet someone for the first time, even when we are attracted to them, there is always an element of chance, of seeing how things go.
Two further questions are 'Do you have any disabilities?' and 'Could your partner be handicapped?' Mr Hoffman says: 'We want to help everyone, though of course some people are easier to match than others.'
Details from the questionnaires are kept on a computer database and, typically, within a fortnight you receive details of five other people with whom the staff of Members have matched you as closely as possible. 'For some people we can be exact, but just because you prefer say a blonde partner, that doesn't mean we won't send you details of a brunette if in other respects you seem well suited.' Every four to six weeks you receive further introductions.
If you want to meet someone, you write to them c/o a box number supplied by the agency, at an extra charge of pounds 15 for up to six box numbers. The advantage of this system is that it provides a safeguard: no telephone numbers or addresses are supplied directly to clients. 'So, although we don't 'vet' our members through a personal interview - that is not possible with a national agency charging economical rates - every member is in control of whether he or she wishes to meet another member. This safeguard is particularly important to women,' Mr Hoffman says. 'In fact I would say that we are as safe as any agency, and safer than most.'
Regular readers of Heart Searching will be familiar with the arguments put forward to explain the phenomenal increase in numbers of people seeking introductions through agencies and classified advertisements: the emphasis on career at the expense of social life; different work patterns, especially for women; changes in social and geographical mobility. For Mr Hoffman, the biggest factors are the growing divorce rate ('once you have lost the knack of chatting up, it's very difficult to get it back') and the understandable reluctance of women to go out by themselves.
He also suggests that the recession has something to do with it. 'People are less friendly and sociable, especially in London. They dress down and don't go out so often. You can't go anywhere in London without spending money - there are very few cheap pavement cafes, as on the Continent.' (He moved to London from Germany three years ago.)
Mr Hoffman is sceptical about some of the claims, and charges, made by more expensive agencies. He insists that Members is not downmarket: 'We have our doctors and pilots, as well as a whole cross-section of people. But not everyone wants to meet someone from exactly the same educational or professional background. It's a real shame that you don't have the opportunity to meet someone who may be suitable just because you don't have the money.'
The appeal of Members to young people was demonstrated on Valentine's Day, appropriately enough, when 25-year-old Mr Hoffman appeared on Channel 4's The Word; along with other experts, he attempted to find a partner for a young woman from 100 likely lads in the audience. But don't worry, girls: the programme's controversial presenter Terry Christian is not, as far as we know, a Members member.
Members: 071-233 5638
The 'Independent' invites readers' comments about their experiences of meeting people through agencies or personal ads. Write to: Heart Searching, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. All letters treated in strict confidence.
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