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Dragon Con

Rachel Reeves was just 7 years old when she attended the very first Dragon Con in 1987. Her sister, Mandy Collier was there, too. She was 11. They’ve attended every year since. That’s because their father, Pat Henry, cofounded the multi-genre pop culture convention.

Then the owner of Titan Games & Comics in Riverdale, Henry had dreamed of starting a convention that could serve as a catch-all show across genres: comics and fantasy, book, movies and TV, pop culture. He hatched a plan over pizza with friends.

It began as a modest event with 1,200 attendees at the Pierremont Plaza Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Mandy and Rachel were in charge of showing guests to their tables.

As the Henry girls came of age, they did so alongside Dragon Con.

“We grew up in the show,” says Collier. “We had our teenage years in the show. We made decisions that might not have been the best in the show — leather pants and a leopard halter top is the running joke.”

Just as the Henry girls matured, so did the convention. When Dragon Con returns this Thursday, more than 65,000 attendees will command five hotels downtown for five days and four nights, and will generate $80 million in revenue in the process, according to projections by the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The modern Dragon Con is, in a word, massive.

It’s a cultural phenomenon that far exceeds what Henry and his friends first envisioned 37 years ago. Which makes it even more remarkable that, as the years have gone by, Dragon Con’s founders have quietly consolidated convention leadership and handed it to the next generation: Mandy Collier and Rachel Reeves.

Chipping in $300 per person, co-founders Henry, David Cody, John Bunnell, Robert Dennis, Mike Helba and Ed Kramer (later ousted from his role in the conference), put together a small, but successful convention in 1987 that steadily grew over the next 12 years.

During that time, Collier and Reeves grew up, started families and both established careers at Delta Airlines.

By 2000, Dragon Con was attracting 10,000 attendees. Henry’s wife Sherry Henry had become an integral part of the operation by then, but they both began thinking about stepping down. The festival had grown too large to work as a side-hustle, it demanded too much from too many and the brand was suddenly mired in controversy surrounding revelations about cofounder Kramer, who eventually would be convicted of child molestation.

Altogether, the conference had grown large and problematic enough that the Henrys and Dragon Con were at a crossroads.

But an unscripted magical moment at the 2000 convention changed their thinking when the actors David Prowse and Jeremy Bulloch (who had played, respectively, Darth Vader and Boba Fett in the Star Wars franchise) were marched by dozens of cosplayers in full stormtrooper attire to a panel discussion. It was as if the movie had come to life in the halls of the Hyatt; the kind of moment Dragon Con was born to create. It was also the moment Pat and Sherry Henry decided that they couldn’t walk away. Instead, they went all-in, committing to the convention full-time and consolidating leadership to pull Dragon Con back from the brink of extinction.

With the Henrys at the helm, Dragon Con grew like wildfire. It expanded from the Hyatt to include the Marriott Marquis, and later the Hilton, the Sheraton and the Westin.

During those years of rapid expansion, Henry was a tireless road warrior promoting Dragon Con at other conventions, and the girls continued to volunteer. “No matter what we had going on career-wise, we always came home for Labor Day weekend,” says Collier.

By the mid-2000s, the convention had grown larger than ever, and the Henrys couldn’t manage it alone. Collier and Reeves came on part time while juggling families and careers. In 2012, Collier left her role at Delta to join on full-time. The next year, Reeves followed suit.

With steady guidance, the sisters’ roles grew and expanded over time. Collier went back to school and got a degree in accounting, eventually settling into her role as treasurer. Reeves dove headfirst into Dragon Con leadership and was named Dragon Con’s co-chair in 2014 alongside co-founder David Cody.

But despite their growing roles and titles, Dragon Con has always run through Pat Henry first.

He’d grown Dragon Con into an 85,000-attendee mega-con rivaled only by leading pop culture events in San Diego, New York and Denver. Together with a tight-knit group, he’d put Atlanta on that map. And when he was finally ready to relinquish his leadership in the run up to the 2020 show, COVID-19 struck.

“Dad was preparing to step back, but then the pandemic clearly was new territory for all of us,” says Reeves. “And while Mandy and I did lead that tremendous push into a virtual conference and all of its pitfalls, he and Mom both really wanted to be there to support us, because it was just such an unprecedented challenge. Could we come back from it? What was this going to carry moving forward? And so, I think that delayed things a few years.”

Dragon Con survived the pandemic, pivoting first to an all-virtual event, and then to a limited live event in 2021. Last year the convention welcomed 60,000 guests to its first year back as a fully live event. Today, with the pandemic sufficiently passed, the convention is Reeves’ and Collier’s to lead.

When Dragon Con returns to Atlanta on Aug. 31, it will take a familiar shape. More than 300 panelists will present, including comic book artists, authors, comedians, tabletop game designers, ghost tour guides, magazine publishers, podcasters, paper toy artists and neuroscientists. Celebrity guests will be in attendance including George Takei, Paul Bettany, Adam Savage, Andy Serkis and Freddie Prinze Jr. Tabletop game Magic the Gathering will introduce a new edition called “The Wilds of Eldraine.”

The convention’s footprint will span the Westin Peachtree Plaza, Hyatt Regency, Hilton, Marriott Marquis and Courtland Grand (formerly Sheraton) hotels — all sold out a year in advance — along with retail space, celebrity meet-and-greets and more than 3 acres of gaming space at the AmericasMart complex.

Daytime at Dragon Con is a rich tapestry of niche fandoms colliding to form something unified. It’s family friendly, with a parade right down Peachtree Street Saturday morning.

But when the sun sets, the stunning hotel lobbies of downtown Atlanta transform into a four-night, five-hotel block party. Attendees roll out professional-quality costumes from their favorite movies, video games and comics. There are poolside pin-up competitions, DJs, dance floors and after-hours panels like a kilt blowing competition, in which an MC points a leaf blower at kilt-wearing contestants. Dragon Con nightlife is a culture unto itself.

“That’s what makes Dragon Con so special,” says Reeves. “You could ask a thousand people and every experience will be different. Some people come just for the bands and the parties and everything at night. Some people come for celebrity panels. Some could participate in the space track because that’s their jam and they love NASA and never step foot outside of it, and that’s OK. Everybody can come differently, and make Dragon Con whatever it is for you.”

For Reeves and Collier, the vision is clear: The Dragon Con of the future should hold onto its roots as an independent, fan-first convention with family-friendly daytime activities and rich nightlife. Their goal is to maintain a balance between paying tribute to the convention’s roots while simultaneously changing with the times.

“At the end of the day, it’s just figuring out how do we change enough to keep it different and fresh; how do we press the sides of our little box to develop things that are cooler and things we’ve never done before, but at the same time not turn us into something that we don’t want to be,” says Reeves

It’s also about preserving legacy.

“When my dad and mom sat down years ago, their whole thing was to make it a show that we would want to attend,” says Collier. “And so, when I’m looking at my grandkids years from now, will it be a show they want to attend? I hope so.”

by Adam Kincaid