The Wrath of CON: an exclusive interview with Con Nooga’s Todd Patton

Nerd Nation’s Dave Harlequin recently sat down with Todd Patton, Founder and Chairman of Con Nooga; the widely-popular multi-genre convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee that’s been taking the convention scene by storm since its inception in 2008, and has since become one of the fastest-growing conventions in the United States.

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(photo courtesy of Todd Patton)

In this tell-all, no-holds-barred, exclusive interview, Todd opens up about all things Con Nooga, from its humble beginnings, to its challenges past and present, to its very bright future, and everywhere in-between… here’s what he had to say.

Dave Harlequin (Nerd Nation Magazine): To begin with, how did you first come up with the idea for Con Nooga?
Todd Patton (Con Nooga Chairman): “Sadly, we had no intentions of starting a convention. Our (Star Wars) fan group Chattooine had been providing all the programming for the Star Wars/SciFi track within a local established convention. We approached them to expand and try to get some fresh ideas mixed in to the existing (ones). We were confronted with hostility and the ‘We have been doing this for years – we know what we are doing’ attitude. All my life I have met challenges head on – which led me to partner with 3 other guys to start planning a convention around the fact we wanted focus on programming and family events during the day and adult/teenage events moving into the night. We had several names that were being teased.  Freak and Geek Festival was one of my favorites; but as we continued to research we decided to let Google find our name. We typed in all our ideas and different variations into Google until we found no hits/pages linked to our selected name. Con Nooga was the winner. So Google helped us make our final name decision. True story.”
DH: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced starting out?
TP: “The fact that Con Nooga was formed around a Hospitality Suite and then outward to programming/events made it hard to get locals to understand what we were doing.  We met, and still meet, a lot of hostility in regards to “NO CONSUITE”.   But since day one we did not want people to focus on that aspect.  We felt the Chattanooga area has so many great restaurants and places to eat and see we wanted to leave feeding people to the professionals while we brought a massive amount of programming and entertainment.  Our goal was to bring strong event/programming to put so much entertainment in front of people that they would eventually get frustrated deciding on what they wanted  to do as they had so many choices.  Chattanooga has some long-standing conventions that have been around for years (a couple turned 40 this year).  So a lot of fans felt there was no need for another ‘con’ in town. I believe now after 8 years most have seen that we are totally different from the other local ‘cons’. 
DH: Likewise, what are some of the biggest challenges you face today?
TP: “Every day is a new adventure and new task to overcome. Guests and working with agents has been a tiresome job every year. People can not even imagine how much some actors/guests require to attend conventions.  Plus, when we started we have attempted to keep any guests from charging extreme rates for autographs. Plus we try to find guests that are receptive to the crowds and want to interact and be a part of all the fun events and panels within Con Nooga. I guess the next challenge is working with so much space and continuously expanding to keep ahead of the crowds has made us change our dates and a juggling situation between the two venues and other hotels involved.  We expanded another 32,000 in 2015 and looking at adding another 40,000 in 2016.  Luckily we have kept in front of our growth and our team has agreed we will add a cap to our attendance to assure we do not have an overcrowding situation. It is a commitment and task to assure things keep on track as we continue to listen to the fans, vendors, and guests in an attempt to resolve issues, improve things, and make the experience fun for the majority.”
DH: You’ve seen a ton of great guests over the years, who are some of the best and/or most memorable ones to you?
TP: “All of them are part of the Con Nooga family.  Some I have been able to spend hours with and others just minutes so in comparison there are so few that I have really been able to ‘hang out with’.  Among my favorites would be  Temeura Morrison, since I am Jango Fett in 501st; April Burril (Chainsaw Sally), Chase Masterson, Chandler Riggs, and Jim Butcher stand out as well – And so many become returning Con Nooga family – Like Radio Cult who has become the Con Nooga staple band, and a ton of authors who come and help make our literary track bigger and stronger every year.”

DH: Con Nooga is very well known, perhaps even BEST known, for its massive annual room party battles, each with its own unique “theme” and has earned a reputation as one of the best party cons in the southeast. Knowing all the work that goes into one, much less dozens, and to say nothing of the risks involved, what inspired you to create this? 

TP: “This was an element that you can find at every convention, but happens without convention knowledge and spread throughout the hotel(s). So we wanted to make it a more organized and manageable event.  Embrace the ‘rebel’ room parties and allow them to happen was our goal from day one.  We do not charge anything extra and we award the ones that actually follow our rules (the winner of each year’s Room Party Battle is awarded free passes/hotel room to the following year’s Con Nooga). We just want all room parties in the same place so it makes it easier on attendees to find them and we can prepare and secure this area over having room parties throughout the hotel.  We encourage groups, individuals, organizations to do a room party.  We provide security and a great place to have them and the attendees appreciate them as well.”
DH: Each year, Con Nooga TV takes over the default channels in every room of every CN hotel to offer some very interesting closed-circuit fun for the whole weekend. Where did you get the idea to do this? What all goes into putting all that together?
TP: “Well like most ideas – you steal them and attempt to make them better.  I first saw Dragon Con TV and I thought it was pretty cool.  So therefore when we started Con Nooga we started filming and collecting funny things so when guests were in their rooms they could enjoy more fandom fun by just turning on the TV and watching CNTV!  Jeff Hickey is the brain behind CNTV and Jezz helped with it a couple years as well.  Our team hopes to actually film more new and Con Nooga only material leading into 2016.”

DH: Since you’ve run Con Nooga, you’ve hosted great programming at the Choo Choo Complex, its three hotels, and plentiful function space, but recently you’ve expanded into the Chattanooga Convention Center where you now hold all of the vendors and several additional panels. Was this simply a sign of growing beyond the capabilities of the original venue, or was the plan for expansion in place all along?
TP: “We wanted to be in the (Chattanooga) Convention Center since day one.  Don’t get me wrong, we love and adore the Choo Choo and the Choo Choo will be our host hotel and night-time spot for a long, long time. We are contracted until 2022. When we moved over there in 2012 we knew it was a risk but we feel we have addressed all issues and we are planning on taking over the entire facility within the next few years. We want to stay ahead of the growth and also cap our attendance so we are never, ever so crowded people become miserable.  So we continue to expand and stay ahead of our projected attendance and needs.”
DH: But what happens if this out of your control? If you outgrow the Convention Center, where do you expand from there?
TP: “We have already spoken to the Marriott (adjacent to the Chattanooga Convention Center) and that will be our last expansion. We are already planning activities within the Marriott as well. Once we fill the Convention Center fully and the Marriott, we will start capping our attendance and managing the crowds. People will simply have to start pre-registering or realize they will not be able to attend.  But, we still have at least another 100,000 (in attendance) before we outgrow both of those facilities!”

DH: Many people have referred to Con Nooga as “DragonCon Light” or “everything DragonCon used to be, before it got too big” how do you respond to these comments?
TP: “To be compared to the Great DragonCon is awesome.  Our team can take the credit for listening to people and their wants/needs. We wanted a convention that encompassed everything any fan could want for; so if we are compared or even thought of as a smaller Dragon Con – our team has obviously met the task and we hope to continue offering a great event.”
DH: Many people have also stated that Con Nooga is either “the biggest small con” or “the smallest big con” around – which would you say is more accurate?
TP: “I would say neither. Con Nooga is Con Nooga. It is hard to explain unless you have attended or taken part in our weekend of fun. We try to maintain a great atmosphere with so much to do and enjoy that you dread the fact Monday is coming.  I like to think we are just the right size. Any time we feel we are getting crowded – we expand so people do not feel crowded.”
DH: You recently developed the official Con Nooga app for iphone & android to offer instant information to all of your attendees. As this has been getting a ton of attention lately, I’ve got to ask, what all goes into creating something like this?
 TP: “Simple. We found a company that had mastered an APP for business conferences and had them develop this for us.  After getting feedback from other APPS etc. and conventions that had developed APPS for their events we found a group that had a tried and true App that met our needs, goals and future needs. We feel the APP is the best source for everything Con Nooga. The depth of the App is far more than I initially wanted. Our biggest task is educating people on how to utilize the APP and all the possibilities the APP has. We will be doing two “CON NOOGA APP” Seminars on Friday (at Con Nooga 2015) so we can educate any new people on how to utilize the app to it’s fullest!”
DH: In the wake of many other conventions either closing their doors completely, or otherwise alienating most of their audience in some pretty ugly PR disasters over the past year or so, without naming anyone directly, what has kept Con Nooga from meeting the same fate?
TP: “The fans, the staff, and not attempting to deter or deflect negative comments. We embrace and try to positively answer all negative feedback. Everyone can become better by listening and taking criticism, but we know we can not please every one.  So we do what we can to listen, make changes, and respond positively when we can not make changes.”
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Con Nooga 2015: Feb. 27-Mar. 1, 2015: Chattanooga, TN

DH: You’re about to put on Con Nooga 2015, what are some of the biggest things you have planned for this year?

TP: “Everything!  From all our normal events to several new; we feel 2015 is lined up to be the best and biggest year ever.   Especially after adding another 30,000 + square feet going into 2015.  And several partnerships, such as the one with Nerd Nation Magazine, that have really boosted internal events moving forward.”
DH: Where do you see Con Nooga in 5 years? Any big things already in the works for the future, beyond 2015?
TP: “We will be expanding again in 2016 and 2017 adding another 35,000 square feet.  And more events and workshops are coming in 2016 as well.”
DH: Any advice for any of our readers out there that may want to start up their own convention?
TP: “Don’t do it. When I started my first Haunt(ed Attraction) in 1999, advice I was given by a long time haunter was ‘Don’t do it unless you have the passion and desire to stay with it’. I feel my approach with Con Nooga is so similar to my Haunting background that I agree to this statement. If you are not truly passionate and don’t have the desire to go outside the normal box, don’t do it. Plus, there are so many new conventions popping up, it is getting tougher to find a date you could even start one. Financially, anyone starting a convention should realize if it is not your passion and you do not have lucrative financial support in the bank to spend on the venture, you might want to just keep attending them.

DH: Finally, what exactly does the tried-and-true “by fans, for fans” convention motto actually mean to Con Nooga?

TP:“As stated in the first question, we were all fans working inside a convention. Our team is full of avid cosplay/costumers that have the desire, heart, and skills to truly say we are fans bringing a convention full of everything we want to see when we go to conventions. I like to tell people ‘Con Nooga is the one convention I love so much but in that same breath I hate it because I do not get to enjoy it like the fans attending’ My payoff is when I see the thousands of fans, attendees, vendors and guests smiling, leaving happy and thanking me and my staff for another amazing year. We love those that have become Con Nooga family members and we hope more people will check us out and join the Con Nooga Fan Family too!”

Con Nooga 2015 will take place from February 27-March 1st, 2015 at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel/Entertainment Complex and Chattanooga Convention Center (and yes, free shuttles are offered) in Chattanooga, TN. Weekend Passes are currently available. For more information on Con Nooga, visit www.ConNooga.com or download the Con Nooga 2015 App, available NOW for iPhone/Android. Nerd Nation Magazine is a proud sponsor of Con Nooga 2015.

-Dave Harlequin
Editor: Nerd Nation Magazine
Twitter: @DaveHarlequin

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One thought on “The Wrath of CON: an exclusive interview with Con Nooga’s Todd Patton

  1. I wished Con Nooga was better than it was. Unfortunately it kind of sucks. Too much hype for such a sucky Con. Might be better if it had someone else over it.

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