Editor's note: This article was written by Ruth Hill and first published in The Observer on Sunday July 4, 2004 in the early days of Original Dating when we ran events at The Park Lane Hilton. Mario and Caroline were the first couple in the UK to meet and marry as a result of meeting at a speed dating event. Article is republished below.
Barbara Cartland would have approved of the way Caroline Eversham and Mario Bassi fell in love: their eyes met across a crowded room and, in the course of a snatched, shy conversation, both recognised a kindred spirit.
In the interests of propriety, however, they turned to a third party to convey their mutual attraction and, after a romance lasting all of 20 days, Bassi proposed and the happy couple are due to exchange wedding vows in a traditional church ceremony next month.
Eversham and Bassi did not meet under the strict gaze of a chaperone, however. Instead, in a plotline that would no doubt have made Cartland shudder, they fell in love in the frenzied haste of a speed-dating evening.
'I feel no embarrassment at all in having met the love of my life in that way,' said Eversham, a 29-year-old primary school teacher. 'I know so many people who have met their partners through some off-shoot of the dating services industry that it seems almost as conventional as being introduced by a friend.'
The rise in popularity of the dating game has been as fast as it has been steep: a few years ago many thought that only the sad and desperate would even consider turning to an unknown third party to help them find love.
Now, one in five single adults in Britain happily admits to using some sort of dating service, enabling agencies to boast of memberships larger than the population of some small countries: DatingDirect.com, for example, has a membership of more than 1.5 million.
'This was an industry that you would have been embarrassed to be part of five years ago, but now everyone and their grandmother is taking part,' said Judith Meskill, senior editor of Weblogs Inc who has carried out research into the evolving status of dating services across the world.
There are currently 11 million single adults in Britain, a number that is predicted to increase to 16 million by 2010, and fairly evenly split between genders.
According to a Demos report last week, the number of socially isolated elderly people will rise by a third to 2.2 million by 2021, thanks to the failure of younger people today to find a partner.
'As the state of singledom has become stigma-free, using these sorts of services to find a partner has become run of the mill,' said Meskill. 'The increase in their popularity has been phenomenal; people are prepared to pay whatever it takes and jump through whatever hoops the agencies put up for them.
'Some ask people to answer hundreds of questions before they will even consider allowing them to spend hundreds of pounds on membership fees,' she added.
As the dating market explodes, so does the range of dating services on offer: Cartland might have been appalled at the drink-fuelled merry-go-round of three-minute dates where Eversham and Bassi fell in love, but compared to some of the options available their night was the model of sophisticated restraint.
Britain's first naked speed-dating event, for example, is due to take place next Sunday at Chez Nous restaurant in Brighton, but, says Meskill, such events mark a natural evolution of what is already on offer.
'There is speed-yoga, dating in the pitch dark, speed-salsa and speed-dating on a ferry between Dover and Calais,' said Meskill. 'Some, such as the naked speed dating, are just gimmicky, but others are thoughtful, focused and likely to have a high rate of success.'
Among the most successful of these more sophisticated offerings is art2heart, which organises evenings for predominantly single people who prefer to have their romance themed around art, cinema, music and theatre.
Ranjit Majumdar, art2heart's founder, is preparing the organisation's second event, at the Hayward Gallery in London on Thursday evening. 'Speed-dating is a brilliant idea, but it encourages people's tendencies to make snap, shallow judgments about each other,' he said.
'I set out to refine those sorts of events because I believe you can fall for someone in the course of a proper conversation who you might have rejected on the basis of a three-minute chat.'
The 10,000 people who flock to speed-dating evenings every month in more than 40 towns and cities represent just a fraction of the millions of singletons who have embraced the promises of websites such as Eharmony, which claims credit for more than 3,000 marriages.
But while some of the winners in this dating game end up living happily ever after, there are other winners in this £600 million-a-year industry who end up extremely rich.
Darren Richards, for example, chief executive of DatingDirect.com, made a profit of £3.5 million in 2003, while Barry Diller, one-time Hollywood mogul turned visionary entrepreneur, bought the Udate website last year in a multi-million-pound deal.
At the head of the game, however, is YooMedia Dating, which announced last week that it had added Dateline and Club Sirius, two of the best-known brands in the British marketplace, to its already bursting portfolio of five other dating businesses.
The group's expansion was rewarded by a revamped sales forecast, completed by independent financial analysts, that estimated its profits rising from £7.9m to £10.9m, with even healthier amounts predicted over the next two years.
'There is massive money to be made in this industry, because people are looking for love on these sites, not just a date,' said David Docherty, chief executive of YooMedia, pointing to sites such as Gorgeous Lifestyle Plus, which charge £1,000 a year for membership.
'People might talk about membership to these sites laughingly, but they are actually taking it very seriously,' he added.
The rise in the popularity of the web-based dating industry in the past year alone is astonishing: there are 44 million links to dating agencies on the web today, compared to 13.1 million in March 2003; 3.95 million personal advertisements, compared to less than one million in 2003; and almost 7.5 million dating services, compared to 2.8 million a year ago.
Of those who are looking for love on the internet, Meskill found that 84 per cent surf the sites five or more times each week, spending £320 million between them - a rise of almost 50 per cent since 2002.
It is this repeated - almost compulsive - pattern of use, however, that is causing a fear among some experts that the industry is creating its own demons, in the form of serial daters, who compulsively go on first dates or attend speed-dating evenings.
Samuel, 27, a banker in Leeds, admits to being concerned that he is becoming addicted to speed-dating: 'I go two or three times a week if I can find enough events, because I love the rapid chatting up, and sometimes I meet girls I really fancy,' he confessed.
'But I never pursue it - I enjoy the mix of talking to lots of girls and I'm not comfortable with the idea of taking one out for a whole evening.
'I love the buzz of seeing how many have ticked my box, and I'm always trying to refine my chat-up technique to set new records. If I don't go for a few nights, I really miss it,' he added.
Mary Balfour, chief executive of the Drawing Down The Moon and the Only Lunch introduction agencies, and founder of LoveandFriends.com and smart-dating.com, admits to feeling concerned.
'People can become serial daters when they first discover the world of dating services, and go out every night of the week with different people without ever having a second date,' she said.
Meskill's research found that people tend to join an average of three dating websites, and log on to all of them at least once a day to 'binge' on meeting new people.