Dragon Con needs to change. The annual event, which draws more than seventy thousand attendees, is a bit of a mess. The con features panels, vendors, a walk of fame, concerts, and massive parties. The attendees are just as varied. There are half-naked people in bondage gear alongside soccer moms with their five-year-old Spider-Man. Dragon Con doesn’t know what it is anymore, and that’s a problem.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Dragon Con. It was my first convention and I fell in love immediately. This was a place where I felt like I belonged, for the first time in my life. Fifteen years ago, the convention was pretty different. People knew it was a convention for adults. We all loved to talk in hushed voices about the weird things that happened at night. Sure, there were panels and a walk of fame and you could do some geeky shopping, but the real draw was the party. After all, it’s not often that geeks get to really let loose and go wild.
A group of gamers and role-players founded Dragon Con in 1987. It was a con created by fans, for fans. Initially, the convention catered to roleplayers and gamers. Science fiction enthusiasts began coming, and Dragon Con introduced more “tracks”. As the con grew, the number of tracks grew. No geek was excluded. There was a track for just about every kind of fandom, from Star Trek to The Dragonriders of Pern.
Too Big, Too Fast
My first Dragon Con was way back in 2003. On their website, the founders of Dragon Con call that year the one that almost “broke” the convention. The con saw a huge jump in attendance numbers. The small con hosted at two hotels just couldn’t take it. There were less than 20 thousand attendees that year. This year, there were at least 80 thousand.
The convention has spread itself out across downtown Atlanta in order to have room for everything. In addition to five host hotels, the con also takes place in AmericasMart. Despite having all of that space, the con feels cramped and the vendor areas are claustrophobic. Attendee numbers rise by the thousands each year. Atlanta is busy during Labor Day weekend, too. There’s the start of college football, a massive book festival, and Atlanta Black Gay Pride. Traffic borders on asinine. The police are spread thin. It’s just too much.
It’s not just the size of the convention that’s causing problems. The tone of the convention has changed. As the founders have tried to corporatize Dragon Con and compete with events like San Diego Comic Con and PAX (held the same weekend in Seattle), they’ve taken away some of what made the con special in the first place.
A Con for Partiers or for Families?
What made Dragon Con unique from its more commercial counterparts was the fans. A sort of Mardi Gras for people who like dressing up as Stormtroopers. It was Halloween for five days, with some extra fun daytime stuff thrown in. There are still bars everywhere in the host hotels. It’s still a party con, it’s just trying to hide that fact. Instead of embracing the party vibe, the con has tried to market itself as family friendly. The convention spends money on renting three floors of the AmericasMart, Money better spent on security in the host hotels. Each year, my friends have increasingly told me horror stories about being roofied or sexually assaulted.
This year’s con ended today. I went yesterday with my boyfriend, best friend, and mom. We had a good time, but our experience was definitely not what it would have been fifteen years ago. Instead of feeling like we were part of one giant nerd family, we felt like cows being herded around. The spirit of the con was gone. Part of our problem was that we didn’t get a host hotel and spend the night, but doing so is nearly impossible anymore. Host hotels sell out in minutes, and the prices keep getting higher.
My fondest Dragon Con memories don’t revolve around panels or celebrities. Instead, I fondly look back on hanging out in the hotels in the wee hours of the morning. I remember making new friends and spending time with the friends I have around the world that come to Atlanta just for this special weekend. I remember room parties and last-minute costumes and the camaraderie of it all.
Competing with Other Cons
The gradual evolution of the con has made it into something more sterile and marketable. It will never be SDCC. Events like SDCC and PAX have the industry sponsorship to do what they do. They are industry shows, where big name celebrities come to promote their work. There are no world premieres or news tidbits being released out of Atlanta each September. The celebrities that do come do so for either the money or because they love seeing their fans. Many are aging former celebs, others are in niche commodities.
As Dragon Con continues to grow, the founders need to rethink their strategy. If the con is going to continue to be an all-ages, massive multimedia event, they need to move it to a convention center. The party atmosphere would have to disappear. It’s possible that such a move would be a fatal blow, alienating the people who have been attendees for decades.
Another option is to limit attendance. Stop trying to compete with the other conventions and revel in the nerdy bacchanalia. Do away with having more than fifty flipping tracks and focus on the ones that matter. It’s just too much.
I’m not an economist. I’m not an event planner. I don’t understand the way all of this works from the organizational side of things. Really, I just want my convention back. I want to be able to get a host hotel room, to party with my friends without worrying about being molested, and to visit vendors in a place that’s inviting and not like a giant flea market. My friends who work the con were overwhelmed this year, so I only got to see them for a few minutes before they had to rush away to take care of this problem or that one.
If it’s going to survive, Dragon Con needs to change. Most important, it needs to figure out just what kind of con it really wants to be.