Dragon Con’s Pat Henry on Building a Convention Community

Dragon Con’s Pat Henry on Building a Convention Community

By Hayley Panagakis, April 3, 2017

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.

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