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Conference on World Affairs goes virtual while shining a spotlight on St. Pete

Jaymi Butler

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Like many other events in the pandemic era, this year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs – a gathering of distinguished diplomats, military, media and academic experts from across the globe – will be moving to the virtual world. 

And while taking the event online means the nearly 2,000 attendees who’ve already signed up won’t have the same type of face-to-face interaction and socialization that have been a hallmark of previous conferences, organizers have found plenty of silver linings that they believe will bring even greater value to both conference-goers and St. Pete as a whole.

“Organizing a fully virtual event for the first time has been an adventure and a challenge, but the advantages of doing the conference virtually are many,” Diane Seligsohn, president of the conference, told the Catalyst. “Most importantly, it allows us to recruit speakers from a much wider pool of experts given that they can be anywhere in the world and do not need to travel.”

For example, the conference, which will be held Feb. 23 through 26, will feature a panel discussion on Africa, with speakers participating directly from the continent. That’s something that wouldn’t have been possible had the conference been in person. 

“Not only do we avoid the expense of bringing speakers to the U.S., but also the logistical challenges such as the need to secure visas,” Seligsohn said. “We are also able to draw a significantly broader audience and we purposely set the conference schedule to allow people across the U.S., in Europe and Africa to attend in real time.”

In addition to her excitement about seeing everything come together virtually, Seligsohn is also pleased with the new partnerships and synergies that have developed. This year, the conference began partnering with the St. Petersburg Group to handle the broadcasting and behind-the-scenes aspects of the event and to increase engagement. [Note: SPG has an ownership stake in the Catalyst.]

SPG has also worked with conference organizers in a rebranding effort that includes a more vivid, vibrant logo, new, more varied session formats and the development of six core pillars – health, humanity, cultural, economics, environment and international relations – that support discussion of the critical international issues of the day. The conference is also teaming up with the New York African Film Festival, which is also taking place virtually, to allow both audiences to take advantage of each other’s events. 

As at previous conferences, the lineup and the discussion topics will be influenced by current events, but in the past, there have never been any overarching themes to draw everything together. That’s definitely changed this year. With the Covid-19 pandemic, a new American administration re-engaging with the world and social movements and uprisings in the U.S. as well as in a number of other countries, organizers decided it would make sense to focus all the panels, interviews and other events under these topics. 

The kickoff event will feature an interview with Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health, an international non-profit organization. He’ll give an overview of Covid worldwide and also put it into the context of recent pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola. Registered participants will be able to interact with speakers and panelists through a chat function at the end of each presentation, and can also submit questions and comments via email.

Though Seligsohn is hopeful that the conference will be able to take place in person next year, she expects that some sort of virtual component will remain in the future. But however the information is delivered, she hopes the conference will continue to bring people together to share thoughts and build connections.

“We are all part of a global community, and even now, when the pandemic has caused us to retreat into our homes and have very limited physical contact with others, it is still possible to meet and learn from each other wherever we may be through the wonders of technology,” she said. “It is more necessary than ever to have reliable information and a variety of views about world events in order for us to be able to have a positive impact on them.”

The conference is free and open to the public but you must register for tickets in advance. To sign up, click here.

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