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  • Writer's pictureWoman Up Cleveland

Exploring the Outdoors with Kelly

Kelly Manderfield - Chief Marketing Officer of Cleveland Metroparks

At Cleveland Pearls, Brittney provides fun and engaging opportunities for girls in our community.
At Cleveland Metroparks, Kelly leads marketing initiatives while creating welcoming spaces for all within our parks system.

As all of us Clevelanders know, there is so much that our city has to offer its residents and visitors alike, and our one-of-a-kind park system is surely something to brag about. The Cleveland Metroparks has continued to blossom since its founding in 1917 and has expanded to over 25,000 acres and includes over 325 miles of walking, bicycle, and bridle trails as well as numerous picnic areas, nature education centers, golf courses, countless fishing spots, and of course, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. 


There are so many parks, programs, and attractions that connect the Emerald Necklace and there is a woman leading the effort to promote everything there is to do in the award-winning Park District. Kelly Manderfield, Cleveland Metroparks Chief Marketing Officer, ensures that residents and tourists in Northeast Ohio get the best possible experience when exploring all that our parks system has to offer. Growing up in Northeast Ohio, Kelly has always had a love for the parks and knows the value and tremendous opportunities that our region has when it comes to green space and getting outdoors.


With a lifelong interest in communications, Kelly found herself exploring journalism and news media early on. She always enjoyed marketing and loved the creativity and writing that came with her studies. An affinity for special events, along with the planning and execution of them was something that appealed to Kelly as well and eventually led to her talent for rallying the community around a cause and a collective passion. She shared, “One thing I never stopped doing was learning and gaining experience. If someone offered me an opportunity to try something new, I always took it. Whether it was through mentors, managers, or supervisors, fostering strong connections has helped lift me as well as prepared me for growth throughout my career.”

After graduating from Bowling Green State University, she began working for a local radio station and eventually into a role at Belkin Productions. Through the early part of her career, she continued to gain experience in executing marketing, promotions, and special events. Eventually landing a job with KeyBank focused on consumer marketing, Kelly spent eight years learning many of the disciplines of marketing, working with agencies, and how to position different services. She has always had a deep appreciation for partnerships and has worked hard throughout her career to repay the mentorships she herself experienced by continuing to open doors for others. 

 The Cleveland Metroparks operates several nature centers that provide educational programs and exhibits about the region's natural history and ecosystems.
The Cleveland Metroparks operates several nature centers that provide educational programs and exhibits about the region's natural history and ecosystems.

In 2013, Kelly found a home at Cleveland Metroparks and as CMO has remained an important part of their incredible team for the past eleven years. She told us, “Every day brings something new and exciting, and it has allowed me to grow, learn, and face challenges. But also, to build a department and team that I am so lucky to work with each and every day, a team of really talented individuals who truly love Cleveland Metroparks and this community. Being fortunate enough to tell the story of Cleveland Metroparks and offer new experiences where family and friends can get out in this region and make memories is something truly special.”


Day to day, Kelly manages overall marketing from end-to-end, including brand, advertising, communications, corporate partnerships, creative services, event rentals, research, retail, and special events. The creative services division produces almost all of the designs and products you see featuring the Cleveland Metroparks. Corporate partnerships have also played a key role in Kelly’s work with the parks and have provided funds and resources for the Metroparks to promote attractions, programs and events as well as enhance community offerings.

Kelly shared, “We do marketing from end to end. We are really fortunate to have the board of park commissioners and our CEO Brian Zimmerman support the power of storytelling. Having resources and capabilities in-house allows us to have full control and be nimble and efficient in our marketing efforts.” With one of the largest social media followings of all of the parks, recreation, and zoo systems in the country, Cleveland Metroparks and their powerhouse marketing team is truly the blueprint for excellence. 


There is something for everyone in the parks. In addition to the public spaces and zoo, Kelly told us about the 75 venue options within the Metroparks that are perfect for family gatherings, corporate events, and weddings. A staple for meaningful moments, Cleveland Metroparks continues to provide a beautiful backdrop for any and all celebrations. Connecting to 49 communities across six counties, there is something for everyone to enjoy and we are so fortunate to have access to such an incredible recreation system.

Cleveland Metroparks is committed to preserving natural habitats and wildlife, with ongoing efforts in environmental stewardship.
Cleveland Metroparks is committed to preserving natural habitats and wildlife, with ongoing efforts in environmental stewardship.

Living in Cleveland, we are proud to show off our stunning amenities and attractions, but the rest of the country is no stranger to our award-winning parks system either. Kelly shared with us that the Cleveland Metroparks is a five-time winner of the National Gold Medal Award for Park and Recreation Management, the highest honor in the parks and recreation industry. Kelly contributes this honor to the hard work of everyone working for the Metroparks saying, “It's a testament to the pace and the purpose by which the team works on a day-to-day basis. We are setting the bar and raising the bar. There are a lot of things under (CEO) Brian’s leadership that are new and different from other park systems. Partnerships are something that is really unique to our system. It allows us to multiply funding and make it go farther whether it be through grants, donations or corporate partnerships.”

This summer, the Cleveland Metroparks will turn 107 years old. As the oldest park system in Ohio, it is a legacy park system and continues to set the standard for recreation in our city, state, and throughout the country. Surrounding the inner city with green space was the original goal of parks founder William Stinchcomb and is something that the organization continues to prioritize and expand on, over a century later. 


Even those outside of Cleveland have paid their visits to the Metroparks and continue to be a part of what makes the attractions so wonderful. “It has been amazing to really see the transformation and how this has become a destination for this region, and a tourism driver for our city. Being a lifelong resident here, to hear outsiders' comment that ‘Cleveland is incredible’ or ‘Wow I didn't realize Cleveland was this cool’ and plan to come back and visit us again is truly rewarding,” Kelly shared.


Above all, guest experience is what drives Kelly and her team to create such impactful work. Ensuring that residents of the area and visitors alike have memorable and meaningful experiences during their visit is the most important factor in their efforts. Acting as the connection between the people and the parks, Kelly said, “Marketing and communications are often the frontline between the community and the organization. So we’re 24/7 when it comes to social media, emails, and phone calls. We want to be really responsive and listen. We are very invested in what the community has to say and conduct over 50 research studies every year. Being in touch with our community is really what it’s all about.”

The Cleveland sign overlooking Edgewater Beach, one of the Cleveland Metroparks' Lake Erie beaches.
The Cleveland sign overlooking Edgewater Beach, one of the Cleveland Metroparks' Lake Erie beaches.

Additionally, Cleveland Metroparks marketing team has made it their goal to develop personas to fit the guests who utilize various attractions and push programs that appeal to their individual needs. These research-based studies help the team to be in tune with how guests hope to experience the parks and in turn make the entire marketing more intentional in their messaging. On top of it all, the team conducts a once-a-decade in-person study that surveys audiences over several months to truly reach guests and learn more about what they love as well as how they wish to improve their parks system.

With over a decade of experience with Cleveland Metroparks, Kelly has seen her fair share of memorable moments but there are still a few that made a lasting impression. She shared with us that the celebration of the Cleveland Metroparks’ hundredth anniversary in 2017 was a major highlight in her career and served as a reminder of the impact the parks system has on the community. Through various celebrations including fireworks, picnics, and more festivities, she loved paying homage to the legacy of the parks as well as celebrating the future plans for the organization.


Another one of Kelly's favorite projects has been the rebranding of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. After polling the community, the team decided to enhance the logo and the entire brand image of the zoo, choosing to be more intentional with each element that guests interact with and strengthen the Zoo’s conservation mission. Kelly told us, “I was really proud of the team who did all of the research and all of the creative concepts and designs. We presented at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference that has over 200 accredited institutions from around the world. We were able to do that work in-house and have a real impact by moving that conservation world to the forefront.”


Such a stellar career makes for many proud memories and Kelly cited a few more that really stood out to her over the years including the Zoo’s efforts in reaching new audiences through their Asian Lantern Festival and other after-hours events. Additionally, the attendance spike during Covid brought 19.7 million recreational visits but through their continuous dedication, the parks system has been able to maintain over 19 million visitors and sustain that impact. “People continue to find the park to be a place to turn to of peace and serenity and I am really proud to see the work that we have done to obtain those new guests and keep them coming back,” Kelly said.

The Asian Lantern Festival hosted by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo features hundreds of illuminated lantern displays crafted by artisans from China.
The Asian Lantern Festival hosted by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo features hundreds of illuminated lantern displays crafted by artisans from China.

With the highlights, there are always challenges and Kelly has had her fair share to overcome throughout her years as Chief Marketing Officer and in the marketing industry as a whole in Cleveland. We talked about the idea of competing messaging within a single organization and how it can be difficult to streamline marketing to appeal to its target audience when there are so many moving parts. “It was a real learning curve to gain alignment and focus on prioritizing different messages at different times because the park system has many programs and events taking place on a daily basis. We had to find a balance to ensure priority messages would break-through,” Kelly said.

Kelly credits social media with being a huge factor in improving the organization's ability to juggle many marketing messages at once. Reaching over a million people, Cleveland Metroparks’ social media accounts remain one of the largest ways that audiences connect with the parks and their programming. Additionally, the connections with media outlets, such as the Fox 8 News “Metroparks Monday” segment, help to broaden their marketing reach and ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to be able to get the most out of their local parks system. 


Cleveland Metroparks Marketing team, under Kelly’s lead, has continued to grow and thrive over the years adding more and more content for users to enjoy including a successful email newsletter, mobile app, and explorations into new social media platforms. Kelly tells us a bit about how she sees these efforts impact community involvement saying, “It’s leveraging all of these different tools in your toolbox to tell the story. We identified an opportunity to better connect everything that Cleveland Metroparks has to offer by featuring a unique brand campaign that has continued to evolve over the past decade. It sets the stage for the upcoming season and helps us raise awareness in new, exciting ways about all of the things you can do throughout the parks system.”


This year's brand campaign just launched last month with the tagline “Your Time. Your Place.” and has been several years in the making. A new campaign is launched every three years, and this particular brand concept has been in the works for over a year and a half while the team utilized focus groups as well as both internal and external concept testing. The team is committed to creating the strongest campaign they can before investing in its success and it is evident in all that Kelly shares, that she and her team are truly passionate about the work.


As we often do, we asked Kelly to tell us about a woman who has inspired her throughout her journey or has helped propel her in her career. She shared with us that this was one of the more challenging questions we had posed, simply because she found that there were too many women to name. “There have been so many women throughout my lifetime who have inspired me and continue to inspire me at all levels. I’ve had a couple of mentors throughout my career who have truly inspired me, helped prepare me, and lifted me up. I have been exposed to women throughout my career who were breaking glass ceilings. Kelly shared.

The Cleveland Metroparks has been recognized with the National Gold Medal Award five times, the highest honor in the parks and recreation industry.
The Cleveland Metroparks has been recognized with the National Gold Medal Award five times, the highest honor in the parks and recreation industry.

Kelly also took the time to shout out the Cleveland Metroparks staff and all of the women she has encountered through her time there. She said, “The women on my team are an inspiration as well. At Cleveland Metroparks, there are women in leadership roles across the park system, including the zoo industry, the parks and rec industry, and more. There are a lot of women here that inspire me on a daily basis because they are paving the way, and they are doing it with confidence and compassion. It is truly inspiring to see them be successful in their roles.”


Finally, she gave special recognition to her own mother, who has supported her in both her personal life and career since day one. Kelly told us, “My mom has unconditionally loved and supported me throughout my life and made a lot of sacrifices for me and my career and continues to do that. I have a young son, and at one time someone told me, “You either have to pick your career or your family, you can’t have it all,” and I am here to tell you that you can have both. It truly is about a network.” She continued on to emphasize not only how her mother's love and support have encouraged her to pursue her career dreams but also how support from her peers throughout her career has allowed her to be a loving and supporting mother herself.


Looking ahead, unsurprisingly, Kelly has many aspirations for both her own career and the future of Cleveland Metroparks. Personally, Kelly credits the next generation with the power to continue making change and expanding the realm of what is possible. “When you get to a point in your career, it is critical that you look to the upcoming generations. Helping prepare them, giving them opportunities, coaching them, and guiding them. I find it to be a truly satisfying part of the work that I do to see younger individuals learning and honing their skills and continue to rise,” she shared.


As for the parks, her visions are clear, and her dreams are big. She not only spoke about her hopes for the success of ‘Your Time. Your Place.’ campaign and its mission to encourage guests to take advantage of how the parks can serve them, but she also touched on her ultimate goal of introducing the next generation to the serenity and peace the parks can offer. Kelly told us, “There is a lot to uncover in the Cleveland Metroparks and so I truly hope people do find themselves and their place in this vast and incredible parks system.”

Corporate partnerships play a significant role in supporting the development and maintenance of the park system's amenities and programs.
Corporate partnerships play a significant role in supporting the development and maintenance of the park system's amenities and programs.

Lastly, she shared her wishes for the Zoo’s success as it embarks on the largest capital campaign in its history. This project serves as a stepping stone along the Zoo’s path to its 150th anniversary approaching in the next decade. The Rainforest, a beloved part of the Zoo for the past 30 years, is getting some much-deserved attention and Kelly hopes to see it foster a new wave of connection with the community. She said, “We are working hard to connect our guests and the next generation to our environment and why taking care of it is so critical. The animals are ambassadors to their wild counterparts and show people why they are important and why they should care about them.”


It is evident that Kelly’s passion for connection is the driving force behind all she does. Through her marketing efforts on behalf of the parks, dedication to helping pave the way for future generations, and goals for leaving a meaningful impact on the way the Cleveland community enjoys its park system, she continues to show just how selfless her work is at its core, saying, “If accomplishing these things could be a part of my legacy, I couldn’t ask for anymore.”


Kelly and Cleveland Metroparks invite each and every one of you to get out and take advantage of what our city has to offer. There is something for everyone and we are so fortunate to have access to such beautiful parks, thoughtful programming, and memorable attractions that contribute to what makes our city special. Kelly left us with a call to action saying, “This is your parks system, this is your place. Explore it and find what speaks to you and what enhances your life. I believe that the Cleveland Metroparks and the Emerald Necklace truly improve the quality of life here in Northeast Ohio and we take it extremely seriously. Having the community take ownership and know that this park system is theirs. Time is often the number one barrier. Making yourself a priority and making the time is critical.”


With a growing list of achievements and a never-ending passion for her work, Kelly Manderfield continues to prove that you can have it all. She works tirelessly to ensure that all members of the community can find a comforting space within our parks system and encourages everyone to get out and explore the city she is so proud to be a part of. Through her continued dedication to serving the public and uplifting her organization's efforts, she is one of the true gems of the Emerald Necklace. It was an honor to speak with someone who not only helps to ensure the success of some of our personal favorite Northeast Ohio events and programs but who continues to shatter her own glass ceilings and pave the way for other women seeking to follow in her footsteps.


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