Clearly, DragonCon has its defenders. Many point to the sheer scope of the convention as a factor, the nearly all-volunteer staff, or the legacy that comes with over thirty years of existence. The scope certainly is a factor. Most other genre conventions focus on one aspect of fandom, be it GenCon or Origins and tabletop gaming or the various Comic Cons’ focus on comics-related themes. DragonCon has 36 distinct tracks running simultaneously throughout the weekend. This doesn’t include the variety of artists and vendors, ranging from anime to tabletop gaming accessories to various leather or clothing merchants. This is perhaps the strongest argument for why DragonCon has to run as it does. People’s interests vary greatly and having a convention that caters to as much genre media as possible makes for a buffet of nerdiness.
As for the all-volunteer staff, most – if not all – conventions run with majority volunteer staff, save for a few at the top who are full-time employees. Volunteers are not the issue, volunteers not being held to high standards of professionalism is. Anecdotal evidence abounds of unprofessional or unorganized behavior from those running tracks, tech ops, and in other areas of the convention apparatus, including press and media. Certainly, not all volunteers fall into this category, and most are not only helpful, they’re downright pleasant people. Others, as reported on Twitter, shout into people’s faces with bullhorns.
A final counterpoint that rises quite a bit is the legacy aspect of DragonCon; that a 31-year old convention will have long-time attendees or management that just cannot change with the times or adapt to new needs of more attendees or that its size is what causes its issues. GenCon just had its 50th anniversary and brings in 60,000+ attendees with few of the issues laid out here about DragonCon. They laid out gaming on the actual field of Lucas Oil Stadium this year! San Diego Comic Con can bring in around 200,000 attendees each year. These arguments are shallow and serve only to ignore the underlying problems that prevent DragonCon from truly being a top-tier convention and not just a kick-ass nerdy drunken revel.
In many ways, DragonCon is the perfect metaphor for the city of Atlanta – it wants to be treated as a big-time convention, but is really 40 different tiny conventions that happen to go on at the same space and time. Atlanta is filled with neighborhoods of all socio-economic demographics, many legacies from the days of segregation, and from one street to the next you can just ignore that anyone else is there. If an attendee wants to disappear into their track and never associate with any other con-goers until general mealtimes, it is entirely possible to just keep to your own tribe. If one doesn’t already have their own tribe, however, it can be quite difficult to find a way to navigate the immensity of the convention.
If DragonCon were in another city with the infrastructure to support it, moving to a convention center would be feasible. With the closest major center being blocks (Atlanta blocks are longer than normal city blocks) from any hotels, however, this becomes a major logistical issue. There are plans being considered to increase the number of quality hotels in the downtown area, but plans are years away from becoming reality. Other conventions, MomoCon being the closest in genre to DragonCon as an example, manage it, but there seems to be no real move in that direction despite generally rising attendance numbers. Keeping the hotel model in place seems to be the direction championed by those at the top and celebrated by attendees who are more interested in the social aspect (cosplay, parties) than the effective running of one whole convention. Without a change in attendance numbers however, there is no real incentive to change. People will still come for all the reasons I listed above and wave off the problems as just part of the experience. If there was a push for it, a serious push, I believe that Dragon Con could rival San Diego, New York, or any other pop culture/geek convention in North America. Until then, hotels will sell out the year before and ticket costs will continue to rise. But, man, I can’t wait to see the parade next year.