Planners You Should Know - Maeve C. Frey, Cleveland Leadership Center

Maeve C. Frey, of the Cleveland Leadership Center, discusses how she honed her skills over the pandemic to now be in position to overcome the challenges that the new meetings/events landscape brings.



This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic world. 


Name: Maeve C. Frey

Company Name: Cleveland Leadership Center

Job Title: Director of Signature Events and Internal Projects

Years of Experience: 10

How did you get your start in the events industry? What made you pursue this role?
I started in the industry as a catering server at 18 - which got me through my fine arts degree in college and beyond. It was actually trying to move away from the hospitality industry that led me right back to it! After running events (and myself ragged) for a high-profile local chef in one of the cultural districts of Cleveland, I decided it was time for something new. I became a real estate agent. I implemented the skills I learned from restaurants/events to propel me into this new career. A couple of years in a friend reached out about a part-time database admin position at a local non-profit... When you've wondered where the rent money is coming from that month because your real estate deal fell through, it's not hard to be open to new opportunities... It was the perfect job to make consistent money for my bills, and still have the flexibility needed for my clients, so I applied and got it. That was March 2019. For the next year, I supported my colleagues in doing many different tasks, including event support. Registration, promo, creative design, and day of logistics. It was easy work to step into, I was familiar with it, and it was still only part-time. We all know what happened March 2020 – and the landscape of work looked very different. My real estate pipeline had evaporated, no one was going into an office any longer, and I was pretty certain I had just found myself unemployed. At CLC's first virtual meeting of the pandemic, I expected the worst. I assumed it was going to be a “Last in, First out” situation, and that meant I was first on the list. It was a somber meeting, but we left knowing that we could all expect to keep our jobs. I wanted to respond to their loyalty and care in kind. As time went on staff members were leaving for new opportunities, so I helped pick up all sorts of tasks, and did a lot of different jobs. When our event coordinator went on to a new company, CLC presented me with the position. I had been doing a lot of support work for these events, but I wanted nothing to do with being responsible for them! I was out of the events industry. I worked in denial for many months, deflecting the offer. Finally, in October 2021, I said yes. I had the skills, the experience... sigh... and surprise, we were less than a month out from a 300+ person party with a new variant on the rise. The contextual and logistical work for our signature event, Accelerate, had already begun... So, I hit the ground running, and I'm not sure I have had time to consider the decision since! What I do know is that my work makes a positive impact on my organization and my community and that matters.
How do you compare planning your first in-person event post-pandemic, to planning meetings/events pre- Covid? What was different and unique? What was similar?
While this was before my current position was official, I was involved in the planning of our pre & post covid events and programs. Like so many nonprofit organizations, we are a people business, and post Covid everything was different except our goals. We had to find a way to connect, engage and excite our community to care about the civic issues affecting our region (old and new), to strive for leadership through adversity, and to support one another, all without being able to utilize any of the tactics we previously had. The venues and organizations that had once welcomed us and our guests had shuttered their doors, many forever. The community leaders we would employ to educate our participants were swamped with the daily disruptions affecting us all. Participation in our programs, once a catalyst for professional and personal growth, was another risk individuals needed to weigh against their family's safety. It was difficult, discouraging, and exhausting. Yet, through it all, the similarities we found were all very human, such as the desire to encourage, help, and find a connection with one another. While these are similar attributes pre and post Covid, what I found to be the most unique was the myriad of ways people were willing to accomplish this. Virtual happy hours, firepit feasts, drive-by birthday celebrations, augmented reality. We truly are a resilient and innovative species!
What was your number one challenge in hosting your first in-person event(s) and how did you overcome it?

Our first post-Covid signature event was Spark: Grit to Great, a leadership symposium on innovation. Obviously going fully virtual for what was a fully in-person event meant to focus on gaining skills in workshops, asking questions from keynote speakers, and networking with professionals from a wide range of industries was the most difficult. Beyond that our biggest challenge was engaging virtual attendees. How do we get people to 1) want to engage in this new "atmosphere" and 2) successfully do so? We needed to innovate an innovation conference. After a lot of brainstorming and research, we settled on a virtual event platform that would allow us to implement Zoom, which is pretty familiar to most at this point, and from there it was about planning for EVERY contingency. We had staff assigned to start conversations on the community board. Offered incentives for engagement through giveaways. We practiced in-house to find the bugs and quirks of the system and created FAQs and user guides. We couldn't afford to employ an a/v company to help with recording or participant issues, so that fell on staff as well. We were tired, but resilient, and overcame it through research, practice, perseverance, and, most importantly, together. Our team cares about one another and the work we do, so it isn't hard to help where you see it is needed. During Covid, however, we had solidarity in the stress, we knew how drowning in it felt and we were constantly handing the life vest back to one another until we realized we had made it where we could touch the ground again… at least until the next event!
What is the top learning that you uncovered from the last two years that you’re implementing in your planning process today? (any other tips or tricks you want to share?)
While I learned a lot about collaboration, trust, and the power of a positive attitude throughout the pandemic, the top thing I learned is virtual aspects of events (when implemented properly) make our lives richer. They help reach broader audiences which increases diversity in thought and life experiences. Virtual elements give more accessibility to those in our communities and beyond giving the mission of our events elevated inclusivity and reach. And let's be honest, while making our lives a little more hectic, they can add some really unique and fun elements to the event landscape. Virtual elements in events are here to stay, and I'm here for it!
With hotels short-staffed, and RFP lead time shortening, what is your advice to other planners to overcome these obstacles when requesting hotels for proposals?
While this is not something I have a lot of experience in, we do have class trips that occur throughout our programs. I would say it's about knowing where to look for the information you need, building relationships, having a solid order of process, and utilizing the people and resources around you.
Are you approaching contracting with hotels differently, post-pandemic?
Hotels, venues, transportation, catering, you name it... it is all about safety, cleanliness, and the ability to accommodate diverse needs. Not that it wasn't about that pre-pandemic, but now we are more conscious and empathetic to that which makes us human. Events need to bend and form with their target audiences, and our audiences are becoming increasingly more aware, and demanding, of what they expect and what they are willing to accept. The bar is high... as it should be. We must strive to rise above and set it even higher... It also never hurts to check/add force majeure language in your contracts.
What is the biggest area of improvement that you think hotels can make when either responding to your RFPs or during the contract phase of your event?
Clear communication about the good and the bad. Customer service is imperative, but it's not true and beneficial service if it's not providing information with concise clarity. If the last few years have taught us anything it's that accurate communication is a necessity on the road to success.
Due to the pandemic, our events community had to evolve, adapt, and grow. Many planners started to embrace new technologies as a result of the pandemic. What new tech are you using today in your planning process as a result?
We, like so many, instantly pivoted to fully remote, utilizing Zoom as our virtual meeting platform. We still do! "Way Forward Leader Lunch Break" is our weekly virtual leadership series, providing local, national, and international leaders the chance to tell their stories and share their missions with the local Cleveland community. The audience gets the chance for Q&A at the end of every conversation, giving them direct access to real changemakers and hopefully inspiring them to become one themselves. We have been providing this series weekly, since March 2020, at no charge. We are also creating an archive of the recordings so the great information and stories we are gathering can continue to teach, guide, and inspire those that find their way into our orbit, Clevelander or Clevelander at heart. We have also used virtual meeting platforms to provide a hybrid approach to our events. We operate on a small, but mighty, staff so the capacity for a true hybrid event is just not there. By giving a live-stream option, we can create recordings and share them post-event - this is increasing our ticket sales as guests that cannot attend in-person pay for access to the recordings. My last, and favorite, implementation is the digital event program. What a game-changer. We have been able to reallocate funds from printing expenses and reduce waste. It also allows for last-minute changes and updates… every planner knows the eye twitch that comes when a speaker cancels last minute, but the programs are already printed.
Since education and relationships are two major pillars in the meetings and events industry, any suggestions on how other planners can learn and network with their peers across the industry?
Don't assume that something or someone outside the industry couldn't be the exact connection that you, or they, need to create something truly innovative and exciting. Stay open, think fluidly, and take risks.
This post is part of the HopSkip Planner Spotlight Series where HopSkip spotlights planners across the industry to bring awareness of how they adapted to COVID-19, communicating and lessons learned and sharing how they are viewing the meetings and events industry in a post-pandemic world. 

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