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Chicago lands big Microsoft conference

Microsoft will bring its new Ignite technology conference to Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center May 4-8, an event expected to attract 20,000 of the tech giant’s customers and potential customers.

The event will include speeches by top Microsoft executives — including CEO Satya Nadella — demonstrations of Microsoft’s latest products, and certification training classes. Chicagoans may participate, too, because much of the conference will be accessible online, and day and discounted passes are pricey but available (the student discount pass costs $995, and the academic faculty and staff discount goes for $1,220).

“It’s about understanding the future of technology,” said Microsoft Office General Manager Julia White. “The conference will provide a real clear vision of what the future of business technology looks like. You will see some incredible new research and development and innovation for the first time ever, and you also can get hands-on, tactical skills on how to run different technology products.”

The newer products on display will include Office 365 Business software and Microsoft’s commercial Azure cloud service, keeping with the trends toward mobile and cloud-focused technology, White said.

The conference combines five previously separate events and covers topics such as business productivity, mobile devices, unified communications and big data and analytics.

White joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez and tourism bureau head Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, at a news conference Thursday at the 1871 technology hub at the Merchandise Mart to announce the event.

White cited Chicago’s easy travel access, transportation and its cultural and entertainment attractions as reasons Microsoft chose Chicago.

Emanuel said he believes the Microsoft conference will help meet his goal of attracting 55 million overnight visitors to Chicago a year by 2020. Chicago set a record for visitors in 2013, the latest data available, with 48.5 million visitors, up from 46.5 million in 2012, said Choose Chicago spokeswoman Meghan Risch.

Ramirez lauded key labor rule changes and labor-dispute settlements that the Emanuel administration helped broker with McCormick Place unions for helping attract new convention events such as Ignite.

“People are seeing one team,” he said.

Emanuel said the conference also reflects the city’s growing reputation as a technology center, with Chicago-area company exits and initial public offerings as of mid-year reaching $5 billion in value. The city is home to 11 sites dedicated to boosting tech-company startups, compared with none three years ago, he said.