30 Years of Dragon Con: An Interview with Co-Founder and President Pat Henry

A Dragon Con co-founder shares his insight into what and who makes the convention such an incredible experience.
  • Dragon Con is expected to bring in 70,000+ visitors this year. (photo DragonCon.org)
    Dragon Con is expected to bring in 70,000+ visitors this year. (photo DragonCon.org)
  • Fans from all over come to Dragon Con to meet and "marvel" at their heroes. (photo DragonCon.org)
    Fans from all over come to Dragon Con to meet and "marvel" at their heroes. (photo DragonCon.org)

As part of the ongoing celebration of Dragon Con's 30-year anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit down with co-founder and current president Pat Henry. Learn more about how this iconic, costume-filled convention came to be an Atlanta success story for sci-fi and fantasy fandom – not to mention one of the city's favorite things to do during the Labor Day weekend.

How was the idea of Dragon Con conceived?

Before Dragon Con, conventions stuck to a single genre. Science fiction conventions were for fans of science fiction literature, gaming conventions were for gamers and comic book conventions were largely retail events. We knew, because we are fans, too, that most people have more than one interest. Literature fans could also be gamers and read comics. So, we decided to put all of those things together, add some media stuff, like Star Trek, and throw in a little rock 'n' roll, so that fans always had too much to do. And costuming was encouraged from the beginning.

The convention is a lot bigger now -- we have 28 different tracks of programming -- but the idea is the same: Create a great weekend for fans who have different interests.

What are some key factors that you believe contributed to Dragon Con becoming such a huge success over the last 30 years?

Without a doubt, it's the fans of science fiction and fantasy, in whatever genre -- books, comic books, movies, television, games, costuming -- that make Dragon Con what it is. Fans provide the energy and the imagination that make Dragon Con a success year after year.

We like to say that Dragon Con is "by the fans, for the fans." Every year, our fans -- in the form of some 2,000 volunteers -- tell us what kind of programming they want to see and we do our best to deliver it. 

We also have to credit our partners -- the hotels, in particular. Their support has been critical to putting on a great convention.

When you started Dragon Con, did you imagine it would have such an economic impact on Atlanta? How does it feel to know that your convention contributes to the city of Atlanta in such a major way?

We started Dragon Con because it was fun and something we wanted to do for fans like us. At first, we thought it would be great to have a few thousand people show up. Then, we wanted to have a whole hotel to ourselves. But we never really thought it could grow to be as big as it has become. Now, we are just thrilled every year to be able to spread the joy that is Dragon Con to more and more people.

Why was Labor Day selected as the weekend to host the convention?

For practical reasons. In 2001, when we added a second hotel, the Marriott Marquis, it was the one weekend both properties could agree on. Prior to that, we had held the convention in October, June and July.

What are some of the home countries of fans who travel to Dragon Con?

Our fans come from every state in this country, many of the Canadian provinces, European nations such as Britain, the Netherlands, France, Czech Republic and Belgium, and Pacific Rim countries including Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced to produce a successful convention year after year?

Our biggest challenge is continuously developing new programming that keeps our fans excited and having fun. Each year, we want to add new ideas that are popular today. For example, our partnership with Georgia Aquarium has been awesome, giving our fans a special night to show off their costuming and enjoy an experience unlike any other, in one of Atlanta's greatest attractions.

Over the last couple of years, as the convention has grown, expanding our footprint has also been a challenge. We want to do it in a way that uses the best spaces downtown has to offer while also keeping everything compact and convenient.

What are some of your favorite memories of Dragon Con?

Every year brings great memories. Some of my favorites:

One year a column of fans dressed as stormtroopers escorted Darth Vader and Boba Fett, from the Star Wars movies, through the crowded lobby of the Hyatt to their panel. Hearing the boots, all in perfect step, on the brick floor, the crowd parted, got absolutely silent and let the procession through. As the group went down the stairs the crowd went wild.

Or when Edward James Olmos and the cast of Battlestar Galactica crashed our fan party just to say thank you. I think they stayed all night.

Perhaps when William Shatner, who was a last minute replacement on the guest list, was supposed to leave on Saturday. He loved the show and ended up staying until Tuesday. Since we thought he was leaving we didn't have any panels scheduled on Sunday so he decided to surprise Leonard Nimoy and crash his "In Search Of ..." panel, which created a Twitter sensation.

Or the year over nine hundred Dragon Con fans danced to Thriller dressed as everything from aliens to stormtroopers to zombies to superheroes.

Can you tell me a little about the new partnership with Dragon Con and MomoCon?

Dragon Con and MomoCon are two different and unique conventions, and we will continue to remain the distinctive events that attracted fans to our cons in the first place. This agreement lets us share resources, talent and knowledge to improve areas where each event needs it most while continuing to pursue our different visions that make Dragon Con and MomoCon great. As a team, we are committed to working together to amplify our strengths, diminish our weaknesses, and we will use our combined influence to ensure that Atlanta and Georgia remain a safe and welcoming place for geeks of all types and lifestyles.

What do you see for Dragon Con in the next 30 years?

One year at a time, please! Next year and 30 years from now, we hope that Dragon Con is a great convention that brings the best of popular culture to the fans.

Any final thoughts you'd like to add?

This year's Dragon Con promises to be the biggest and best yet. In addition to adding over 200,000 square feet to expand programming, gaming and comics, we are looking at booking the best guest line up in our history.

We are proud to call Atlanta home. We are all Atlantans, born and bred. Between the movie industry and Georgia Tech, plus a host of other factors, Atlanta is a great city for popular culture. I'm not sure Dragon Con would have been as successful anywhere else.


Dragon Con's 30th anniversary promises to be an unforgettable convention for fans of all stripes, no matter if it's new to you or you're already planning your parade spot

Courtney Curry is convention services manager with Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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