It wasn’t long ago that using a dating agency could mark you as an undesirable, perhaps even a weirdo. But with the rise of the internet, using a third party to find love has become a commonplace, even preferred, method of finding a partner. This rush to find love online has, some argue, reduced the dating process to a superficial transaction. For some, the romance and ritual of dating has been lost and there is at least one introduction agency that still believes in personal contact, romance and good old-fashioned manners. It also believes in charging upwards of £10K for its services.
Berkeley International was set up by Mairead Molloy in 2003 to provide a high end, personal introduction service to the wealthy. And although she welcomes the normalisation of finding love in this way, she does seem to hanker after a pre-social media world where, she believes, people were just… nicer.
“The first couple of years of operating were easier than they are now because people were nicer, more mannerly, easier to deal with and more respectful. People were more tolerant and less bitchy,” she says. Whilst it might be easy to dismiss Molloy and Berkeley International as a throw-back to the days of submitting dating profiles via VHS cassette, the company has grown from one office in 2003 to a global network across 13 countries turning over £1m annually.
So, there’s clearly a market for its services and, according to Molloy, it’s not the preserve of “the twin pearls set” with clients on her books as young as 22 and mature as 88 years old. They are a mix of entrepreneurs, inherited wealth, self-starters and celebrities. A demanding clientele for sure but one that Mairead seems to revel in managing.
Growing up in County Wexford in Ireland, she studied hotel management before setting up and ultimately selling a software company before, on a whim, buying a hotel in Cannes, where she still lives. That venture lasted four and half years before she once again sold up and accepted the role of Global Director at a fledgling Berkeley International.
It was whilst setting up Berkeley International that she took a degree in psychology and a Masters in criminology redefining herself as a relationship psychologist along the way. It’s not clear whether she is a natural people person, or if the psychology training has given her the skills, but she is able to disarm and engage the person in front of her effortlessly.
She is a jumble of relaxed and intense, measured and flippant, confident and vulnerable. It’s an unusual mix, but it seems to work with a demanding client base. She happily concedes that the scope for complaint in her line of work is 100%, which is why she believes that the one-on-one interaction that her agency provides is so important.
“When someone comes in, you have to paint an absolutely honest version of reality. All we can do is give you advice, introduce you to the best possible people that we can and by process of elimination, and through your feedback, try and pinpoint the best person for you.” Which sounds straightforward enough but when people have shelled out tens of thousands of pounds and not met their match, they tend to turn to the supplier for recompense.
A 2018 court case involving premium dating agency, Seventy Thirty, shows just how wrong it can go. The agency was ordered by the courts to refund Tereza Burki’s £13,000 membership fee after she was unable to find a suitable match through their services. Ms Burki was in turn told to pay Seventy Thirty £5,000 in libel damages for posting an online review describing the company a scam. All very messy and undignified. So how does Molly ensure that Berkeley does not find itself dragged into a similarly unseemly situation?
“I don’t think the ruling against Seventy-Thirty was justified – I think it was brutally unfair,” she says. “These people come into introduction agencies and pay money and they have this idea in their head that they are going to meet their prince or princess charming – they are deluded.
“What you should do is come in with an open mind and treat the people who are looking after you with respect and accept the dates that are arranged based on the criteria you have provided. This business is all about humour and personality and being able to laugh at yourself – if you can do that, you’re going to meet someone.”
She says that over the last 16 years, Berkeley has had about 5,000 people on its books and that the success rate, defined as a relationship lasting longer than six months, is high, depending on the age group. “If you are between 22-38, the success rate can be as high as 70%. That success rate decreases the older you get but once people go beyond the child-bearing years, it goes back up. For older people it is really high, about 80%, but they’re more willing to accept reality.”
Berkeley has three options for the lovelorn – membership which provides access to the UK client base, an equivalent that broadens the search across Europe and further afield and a bespoke service where matches are ‘headhunted’ on behalf of a client. Travelling around the world, headhunting that elusive individual to complete the life of a wealthy individual (“never an English person, always European or international and generally a man in his early 50s or woman in her mid-to late 30s”), must mean Molloy has had to leave her Wexford roots behind and join a global elite.
“I live in a simple world,” she insists. “I don’t live in a fancy house or drive a fancy car. I like a fried egg sandwich, watching Coronation Street on the phone to my mother. The world of wealth and fame doesn’t bother me. It’s not me, it’s what I do.” This is reflected in her desires for the future. Aside from desperately wanting to appear on the Graham Norton show, “I just want to go to India and not give a sh*t about nothing.”
She quickly admits that she couldn’t do that forever. She needs to be doing something. And for now, that something is continuing to kick against the transactional approach to dating that chafes so much and bring romance, personality and love back to the world of dating. At a price.