When the COVID-19 pandemic silenced the 104th Indianapolis 500 in May, a related tradition went quiet as well. Organizers canceled the 500 Festival Off the Grid, presented by KeyBank, an annual black-tie gala that takes place the night before the drivers start their engines.

What did KeyBank and its Indy 500 partners do in response? They got creative. Instead of hosting a race-weekend escape for movers and shakers across the region and country, they reallocated the event’s resources to create hundreds of 500 Festival Off the Grid VIP Gift Boxes – and delivered them to front-line health care workers in central Indiana.

“Off the Grid is a tradition that dates to 1957. It’s a great event that KeyBank is proud to be part of,” said Juan Gonzalez, president, Central Indiana, KeyBank. “When we learned we were unable to sponsor the event this year, we talked with our Indy 500 partners, and the Off the Grid VIP Gift Box initiative was proposed as a way to carry forward the spirit of the event. Instead of celebrating the race, we celebrated our region’s health care workers. It was a different Off the Grid experience, but I think it was the most impactful yet.”

“When we learned we were unable to sponsor the event this year, we talked with our Indy 500 partners, and the Off the Grid VIP Gift Box initiative was proposed as a way to carry forward the spirit of the event. Instead of celebrating the race, we celebrated our region’s health care workers.” – Juan Gonzalez, KeyBank

Gonzalez and Mark Knierem, Key marketing manager, helped redirect the event’s focus to the gift boxes, which were filled with upscale food and beverage items from Hoosier businesses. They and Ann Miller, who serves as executive assistant to Gonzalez, worked closely with the nonprofit 500 Festival on the details. Key also added bottled wine to each basket – Gonzalez coordinated with a local winery on the label. “It was a full team effort for sure,” Gonzalez said.

The Indiana Roof Ballroom, where the party is normally held, and its Crystal Catering team took charge of the assembly and delivery of the boxes. In July, Gonzalez was part of the team that delivered the gift boxes to front-line workers at Indiana’s four largest health care systems. The postponed Indianapolis 500 race happened on Aug. 23, without fans in attendance.

“COVID-19 and the ensuing restrictions on business and events have challenged many organizations to rethink how they can continue to provide value to business partners, while supporting the community. Even venerable institutions like the Indy 500 have not been spared,” Gonzalez said.

According to Gonzalez, the refocused idea remains valid as a way to recognize first responders. KeyBank is open to continuing the recognition and incorporating the concept into the 2021 Off the Grid experience.