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A line of town cars and SUVs outside the downtown Seattle hotel where Microsoft hosted its CEO Summit opening reception Tuesday night. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

The door to the black SUV opened, and suddenly there was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, wearing a dark blue blazer and crisp white shirt, striding confidently into the ground floor of the downtown Seattle hotel with the evening sunlight at his back.

Up the bank of escalators, top executives from companies such as Geico and Kroger mingled with other corporate titans before heading into the ballroom for a dinner hosted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

Later, after the dinner ended, Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo talked with a small group of executives in the hotel lounge, as longtime friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffett walked together down the stairs and into the night, a game of bridge no doubt in their future.

The remarkable scene, as viewed Tuesday night from the lobby of Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel, was the opening reception and dinner for Microsoft’s annual CEO Summit. One of the Seattle region’s most fascinating and high-powered annual traditions, the multi-day event in Seattle and Redmond is still going strong after more than two decades, but it’s more secretive than ever.

Microsoft’s CEO Summit dates to 1997, when Gates, then the company’s CEO, “recognized a need for business leaders to gather and exchange experiences” and “to learn about new technologies that will have an impact on business in the future,” according to a past Microsoft FAQ about the event.

These are no idle conversations. The surprise partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, connecting their Alexa and Cortana voice assistants, traces its roots to a discussion between Bezos and Nadella at the Microsoft CEO Summit two years ago. So it’s notable that Bezos is back at the event this year, attending last night’s opening reception with his wife, the author MacKenzie Bezos.

The stakes are especially high for Microsoft these days, as the company aims to persuade the world’s corporate leaders to stick with its technology as it transitions to the new world of the cloud and smart devices. The company isn’t releasing information about Nadella’s talk this year, but his recent Microsoft Build keynote, on the emergence of the “intelligent cloud and intelligent edge” was no doubt a preview of the themes he’ll be trying to get across.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (GeekWire File Photo / Todd Bishop)

Along the same lines, other executives attending this year include Lei Zhang, CEO of China’s Envision, a company working on Internet of Things technology for energy.

Microsoft had plenty of its own key leaders on hand to work the room. Microsoft executives attending the opening reception included CTO Kevin Scott; Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer; Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of global sales, marketing and operations; and Phil Spencer, head of Xbox.

In years past, Microsoft opened portions of the event to reporters via closed circuit video on the Redmond campus, but over the years the event has gone further and further under the radar. This is the first year that the company hasn’t released even a partial attendee list or any other details.

Reporters over the years have gotten very creative in their attempts to shine a light on the gathering, with the Seattle Times in 2008 digging into the registrations of planes on the tarmac at Boeing Field during the event to discern more about the attendees. More recently, however, companies have become more savvy about cloaking the identities of their corporate jets.

In 2004, a Wired reporter infiltrated the pre-event party to talk with Buffett and witness a tense discussion between Bezos then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Last year, a highlight of the event was an appearance by Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister.

These days, details of the CEO Summit are more likely to emerge via social media, with some attendees publicizing the fact that they’re at the event.

But for the most part, this unique gathering of top executives is now kept under wraps, primarily serving as a spectacle for other guests in the lobby at the downtown Seattle hotel.

Wait a second, was that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates? Yep, it sure was.

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