Dragon Con's Pat Henry on Building a Convention Community

Dragon Con has come a long way since it began in 1987.

Dragon Con Pat Henry

It's a hot, rainy summer day and a young Pat Henry sits at a table reading a soggy comic book. It is the first time the future Dragon Con president lays his eyes on a Marvel comic—an early issue of "Journey Into Mystery," detailing the adventures of the mighty Thor.  "It was rained on and wet, but I thought, ‘Wow! This is a great comic book,’" says Henry, who, thanks to his older brother, was surrounded by comics since before he could read.

Dragon Con Pat HenryWhat began as a childhood hobby grew into a full-fledged passion. It eventually led Henry, along with a few friends, to co-found Dragon Con: a four-day fantasy convention with education sessions, workshops, celebrity panels and more held every Labor Day weekend at multiple Atlanta hotels.

Established during a time when geeks and nerds didn’t really have a community of their own, Dragon Con has come a long way since it began in 1987. In 2016, the convention attracted more than 77,000 attendees for its 30th anniversary—largely thanks to Henry and his wife, Sherry, who were determined to build a community for individuals who felt they didn’t belong.

Now, as their daughters begin to dive into the family business, it’s clear the community Henry and his wife have built will live long and prosper.

How did Dragon Con get started?

[It was] founded in 1987, but we actually began meeting in 1986 at a pizza joint [in Atlanta]. There were seven of us and we wanted to develop a convention we would want to attend ourselves. Back then, there were “Doctor Who,” “Star Trek,” comic book and science fiction conventions, but never did they meet. Nobody ever addressed the whole spectrum. We sat at the table—some of us more interested in gaming, but all of us into comic books—and decided to put together a show that would incorporate our interests horizontally rather than vertically. No convention was doing that.

Why brand it as “Dragon” Con?

Dragons are in gaming, comic books and literature, and incorporated the fantasy we were looking for. Dragon Con reached across everything, rather than calling it a comic con or a science fiction convention. It spanned the galaxy of what we were looking to do.

How did you build a community within Dragon Con?

The community we built was of like souls who had never encountered anything like what we were presenting. Our greatest advertising is word of mouth. People tell others, “You gotta come see this. There was a guy dressed up like Green Lantern and you could not tell a difference [from the character].”

The community just kind of developed and it became our direction. We look to our community for any changes we make and any new programming we do.

Dragon Con began in the ’80s, but attendance jumped over the last two decades, growing from 10,000 in 2000 to 77,000 in 2016. What changed?

From 1987 to 2000, I was not the person in charge. I was the business guy in the background, doing hotel deals, making sure bills got paid and running the vendors. Back then, [Dragon Con] kind of flopped back and forth. Some years we’d have a strong lineup and the next year we wouldn’t. Some years we would fail logistically.

In 2000, my wife and I took over. I stepped out of the background and into the frontlines. We made two big changes: No. 1 was [payroll]. I told [the team], “Guys, this is going to take a lot of time. I need to get on the payroll.” Knowing I was going to have to step into this role and my other job would suffer, I had to be paid.

Secondly, we began running it like a business. In 2001, I brought in Jefferson Starship [to perform]. That blew us out of the water; I didn’t realize how popular they were. Our projections blew up and we grew [to 13,000 attendees] in 2001.

How else did you help grow the Dragon Con brand?

In 2001, we signed a deal with Atlanta Marriott Marquis and Hyatt Regency Atlanta. It was a big jump in our room commitment. When [my wife] and I realized this, we hit the road, concerned we would not be able to sell out our Marriott [room block]. We took Marriott fliers with us and went anywhere we could find our fans—whether it was another comic convention, a “Doctor Who” event or whatever. We handed out fliers and sold memberships. We hustled and were able to make our room commitment. That was part of the reason for our growth.

What was it like before your partnership with the hotels you use today?

The first year, we had a contract with a hotel in Atlanta and had to call a lawyer the day we were supposed to set up the show. The manager there jerked us around, in part because we had no track record. In 1990, we went to another hotel and were asked not to come back because we dressed funny and were loud. We weren’t the trade show group they thought we should be.

Dragon Con Pat Henry geek has become chicWhy do you think hotels jerked you around?

We were perceived to be a bunch of nerds. Nerds and geeks today have developed into a different thing from they were back then. If you look up geek in the dictionary, a geek is the guy who bites the heads off chickens in the sideshow of a carnival. It isn’t exactly a term of endearment. Thanks to the millennial generation, people have started to embrace nerd culture. Geek has become chic. Thank god for Bill Gates and people like that who absolutely set our profile.

What changed?

I talked to a rep at [Hilton Atlanta] about what we needed to do to endear ourselves to hotels and he said, “Just sell us out.” At that point, we started working hard to sell out and get our own host hotel, which we eventually did get with the Hyatt. Dragon Con now has five host hotels and 20 or more overflow hotels. The Marriott sells out in three minutes—that’s over 1,000 rooms.

Would you say Dragon Con originated the phenomenon of cosplay?

I don’t know if we originated cosplay, but I’m sure we certainly helped it. We’re a big deal in the cosplay world, but it’s not really about that. It’s more about the experience at the show. When people come to Dragon Con, it’s like stepping off the planet for four or five days. You’re among people who get you, and even if they don’t, they don’t care. You can dress up however you want and it’s cool. You can originate a costume of your own. You can come as Deadpool. Oh my gosh, [in 2016] we had thousands of Deadpools—Deadpools wearing skirts, kilts, coats and jackets, pajamas… it was unbelievable.

How do you make Dragon Con stand out from the competition that exists today?

We do what we do. As long as we’re doing that, we’re going to be fine. It was never my goal to be the biggest. It was my goal to be the most fun. If that’s the “best,” that’s OK too.

How would you describe Dragon Con’s identity?

Dragon Con is like Mardi Gras for geeks. I’m not crazy about [that description] because Mardi Gras is very different from us, but it’s close to reality. We are a community of geeks and nerds, that’s true. But we also have an awful lot of what we used to call the “mundanes”—the people who don’t get into the science fiction, the comics or the games. We have a lot of people coming now to see what we’re all about and to watch people have fun.

How has Dragon Con changed over the years?

It’s bigger, and we’ve added more tracks. Prior to 2001, we were a bit scattered and not as focused. In 2000, we got serious and provided business models. We realized we had to make payrolls. The expansion was incredible and the numbers are nuts.

Prior to 2000, we were gauging our numbers by other geek shows around the country. A 5,000-attendee event was a strong show back then. In 2001, we threw that model out and said, “Let’s go.” We were more than doubling the room commitments we had in 2000. To say I was nervous would be an understatement.

Dragon Con had record attendance last year. Hard work must pay off, huh?

It’s a lot of people, but I’m more impressed by the amount of money we bring into Atlanta and the amount of money we give to charity. We usually give more than $100,000 to a different charity each year. In 2016, it was the Atlanta Center for Self-Sufficiency, which works with homeless and jobless citizens on job training and resumes.

Has Dragon Con reached its peak?

I think we can go up to 100,000 attendees with the model we’re in now. We still have a whole building of the AmericasMart Atlanta we can expand into. There are still hotel rooms available in downtown Atlanta as well.

With continued growth, do you have plans to move into a larger space, like Georgia World Congress Center?

I’m not in a hurry to move. One thing about Dragon Con [attendees] is they like to drink. We rarely have problems with drinking—if you’re a problem, we remove your badge and you’re out. But we do need a social lubricant. Alcohol fits the bill, and we don’t like to be more than 150 feet from a bar. Hotels are hospitable and set up bars everywhere for us. If one hotel bar gets too crowded, you can go to the next one. I think we’ll be OK [away from the convention center] up to 100,000 people.

That’s a lot of people. How deal with security?

We’re careful. Our weapons policy has always been in effect: Nothing that looks like a live weapon [is allowed]. Everything must be peace bonded. We also do different things to ensure swords don’t come out of their scabbards and whatnot.

After 30 years of Dragon Con, what’s your most memorable moment?

It was nice to see the city, the Atlanta CVB and the hotels embrace us [for our 30th anniversary]. On a personal level, the best thing was to look at what my wife and I have built and to see my daughters taking a huge hand in running it. The fact that it will go on after me—and that my daughters care about it and have taken it to heart like we have—is incredible.

Wow! Talk about leaving a legacy.

It’s neat, but I don’t think of Dragon Con in terms of what I’ve built. I think of it in terms of the community and what they’ve done. It’s about the fans who get into it and spend hours putting together costumes thinking, “Hey, this is going to be killer at Dragon Con.” 

More on Dragon Con...

WHAT'S IN A MEMBERSHIP?

Dragon Con is not simply a ticket to an event; it's a membership. “All memberships expire on Labor Day at 5 p.m., and then you can buy another membership for next year,” says Henry. In 2016, membership included:

> Admission to any part of the convention: panels, concerts, demos, contests, etc.

> A quarterly newsletter

> Discounted airfare with Delta Air Lines

> Specials on rental cars and chauffeurs

> Deals on select e-books

> Discounted season passes to Six Flags Over Georgia


WHAT'S MOMOCON?

With a big anniversary come big surprises. Gearing up to celebrate 30 years last year, Dragon Con Inc.—the parent company of the Dragon Con event—announced a partnership with MomoCon, a four-day convention for American and Japanese anime, games and comics held at Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta each May. Founded as an offshoot of Anime O-Tekku, Georgia Tech’s anime club, MomoCon has seen rapid growth since its first event in 2005, gathering more than 28,000 people in 2016.

“It’s a marriage made in heaven,” says Henry, noting that unlike Dragon Con, MomoCon’s focus is largely on gaming and anime. “We’re an older market and more financially able, but the two markets as far as interests are dead on. The match is ridiculously good for both of us.”

Photo credit: Dragon Con Photograph