Microsoft canceling conference a ‘significant loss’ for Chicago in 2016 – Chicago Tribune
In a major blow to Chicago’s technology community and tourism industry, Microsoft has canceled its Ignite conference for 2016, and plans to move it to Atlanta.
The loss of the conference, which was scheduled for May 9-13 at McCormick Place, will affect more than 50 hotels and cost the city about 90,000 room nights, sources said.
A corporate travel partner for Microsoft sent notice to participating Chicago hotels Tuesday night, informing them of the decision and requesting that the rooms booked for the May event be released.
A Microsoft blog post confirmed Wednesday that Ignite 2016 will take place Sept. 26-30 in Atlanta. “We’ve continued to listen to your feedback and use it to refine our approach,” the company said in the post. “To that end, we have made the decision to shift Microsoft Ignite from spring to fall.”
A company spokesman declined to comment further.
Microsoft Ignite made its debut at McCormick Place in May, with a weeklong event showcasing its products to information technology professionals. The inaugural conference drew more than 20,000 attendees, officials said. The return engagement was on the books for 2016, but sources said Microsoft wanted to reschedule for later in the year, when McCormick Place was unavailable.
Chicago’s tourism industry was already facing a challenging 2016, with 200,000 fewer convention room nights booked than last year, according to Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism arm. With the loss of Microsoft Ignite, the deficit will be closer to 300,000 fewer room nights.
In an email to hoteliers Wednesday morning, Don Welsh, president of Choose Chicago, expressed his disappointment over the software giant’s decision.
“While this is a significant loss for the first half of 2016, I want to assure you that this action taken by Microsoft is purely the result of industry buying cycles,” Welsh said in the email. “The customer requested fall dates to better align with those cycles; however, McCormick Place did not have space available.”
Choose Chicago is under financial pressure, with $7.2 million of its funding frozen by the state’s ongoing budget stalemate. Last week, the agency announced it would eliminate 28 positions, representing one-fourth of its workforce, and close two international offices, with more potential downsizing ahead, officials said.
Convention business tends to be cyclical and booked years in advance. While tourism has been on the upswing, Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, which would have tied up McCormick Place, chased away at least some convention bookings for 2016, according to Welsh.
Beyond that, eight other major conventions have canceled events in Chicago since 2012, including GRAPH EXPO 2016, the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show and the HIMSS19 Annual Conference & Exhibition, a health care event with 35,000 attendees.
The one-two punch of Choose Chicago’s downsizing and Microsoft’s cancellation is of great concern to the city’s hotel operators, who have more than 2,000 additional rooms to fill with the opening of 10 new Chicago hotels in 2015.
Longtime Chicago hotelier Laurence Geller said it is too late to find significant new convention business for 2016, and recruiting leisure travelers requires aggressive marketing, something that has been put on hold during the state budget stalemate.
“The only way to fill it in is to induce business through short-term marketing campaigns — promotions, events,” Geller said. “But there’s the conundrum: (Choose Chicago doesn’t) have a budget.”
The state provides about 40 percent of Choose Chicago’s $30 million annual budget.
Geller, the former CEO of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, completed the acquisition of the Waldorf Astoria Chicago from Sam Zell’s Equity Group Investments in July. He is also converting an office building at 101 E. Erie St., formerly home to ad agency FCB, into a 290-room Conrad hotel, which is set to open in May.
While neither of Geller’s luxury hotels was booked directly for the Microsoft conference, he said the cancellation will affect rates across Chicago, including at his properties, which would have benefited from limited availability.