The year was 2020, and COVID-19 had reined in the juggernaut fan convention that is Dragon Con, forcing it to become a virtual event instead. Some friends who were regular volunteers for Atlanta-area conventions like Dragon Con and Momocon decided that they wanted a small nerdy get-together to celebrate when everything was finally over. When they realized the demand for such a party was high, they shifted gears and made it a full-blown nerd convention!
That’s the story you’ll find at nerdigras.org of how Nerdi Gras started. Nerdi Gras is a convention with the theme of Mardi Gras in New Orleans: the weekend-long party connects everything together! Nerdi Gras made its debut March 10-12, 2023, at the Atlanta Marriott Northeast at Century Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Nerdi Gras co-owner Kevin Stallard took a few minutes to give Couch Soup a first-hand perspective on how it all came together.
So why a Mardi Gras theme? Kevin notes, “The timing (March) made the name ‘Nerdi Gras’ seem like a perfect fit.” Indeed, the purple, green, and gold colors and Harlequin imagery that decorated the convention guide, badges, and signs conveyed that theme well. Plus, the numerous strands of beads available everywhere definitely inspired the Mardi Gras aesthetic! And the convention center’s central hallway was its own little Bourbon Street, lined with convention attendees socializing and enjoying the party.
Kevin said that they want the con to have an atmosphere of color, artistry, and music. “We want it to feel like it would if a bunch of nerds took over Bourbon Street for a weekend. If people are wearing costumes and dancing down the halls on their way to something fun, we’re doing it right.”
As a small con just getting its start, Nerdi Gras had to decide early on what kind of topics to focus on when lining up special guests, vendors, and panels. For Kevin, the choice was obvious: “The founders of Nerdi Gras—myself, John Sparks, Jason Gonding, and Phil Collins—are all volunteers at Dragon Con associated with gaming… so going with a gaming theme seemed a good fit for us.” Kevin has served as the Director of Video Game Programming at Dragon Con for 15 years, and Phil is the current Director of Board Gaming at Dragon Con.
Creating something on a small scale was also part of the point. Kevin said that they wanted to provide “‘entry level’ geek experiences for people who have always wanted to experience parts of fandom, but may not have the opportunity” They recognized that jumping into social geekdom can sometimes be overwhelming:
“If you want to get into cosplay, throwing something together and hitting the Marriott during Dragon Con can seem VERY daunting. (It isn’t, but the perception is there.) If you’ve always wanted to try a D&D campaign but you couldn’t find a group of people willing to walk you through the learning curve, it can be difficult. Maybe you are curious about burlesque, but you don’t know where to go, who to see, or how to join in the fun?” For all this, Nerdi Gras has you covered!
It’s also a con that gives veteran geeks a place to introduce someone to their hobby or passion. Kevin explains, “A lot of our programming is focused on ‘how to’ and learning about things like costume design or how to DM a tabletop game. Where else would you have an opportunity to sit down with a professional costumer and actually make your first piece of foam armor? How about a chance to sit down with a burlesque performer and learn about stage makeup or costume design (because ‘quick removal’ isn’t as easy as it looks)?”
In spite of their years of experience, though, Nerdi Gras founders had a few challenges to overcome. Foremost was the location: the hotel they had selected for the first scheduled date in 2021 hadn’t finished construction on their ballroom because of COVID-19. Kevin said that by the time they started approaching 2023, “the general attitude was, ‘We’re going to have this convention, even if we have to do it in a Walmart parking lot.'” The founders give credit to the Atlanta Marriott Northeast for stepping in and working with them to make some miracles happen.
For every challenge, though, there were people passionate about working through it. Kevin said that his big takeaway from Nerdi Gras 2023 was, “You can’t know what it’s like to run an entire show until you’ve done it.” It’s a lot of moving parts: programming, technical operations, marketing, photography, guest hospitality, registration, and so much more. “There are a million details that go into each of those, and the only real way to learn them is to get in there and do it. We are fortunate that we have some of the best volunteers in the known universe, and they have the patience to teach us while they’re getting the job done.”
For its debut year, Nerdi Gras 2023 featured everything from gaming panels to dance parties. Here are some highlights from the weekend’s events:
Celebrity guests. D.C. Douglas (Resident Evil, Mass Effect) had panels to discuss and answer questions about his broad experiences in acting both on screen and behind the mic. Mark Meer (Mass Effect, The Long Dark) talked about his broad work across acting, writing, and theater, regularly serving as the Dungeon Master for Improvised Dungeons & Dragons with the non-profit Dad’s Garage theater company in Atlanta.
Board gaming. Game designer Steve Jackson was scheduled to be on hand in the Board Gaming room throughout the convention and was going to lead a number of panels. However, Steve expressed his regrets after testing positive for COVID-19, including a special video message played at the convention wrap-up panel. Fortunately, some of Steve’s colleagues were on hand to keep the fun alive in his absence.
Activities. Throughout the convention, guests could stop by to enjoy classic video games at the arcade for free! No need to bring your quarters or tokens! And for an extra special experience, attendees could schedule time to play the Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator.
Artists, authors, and cosplayers. Numerous authors and artists had booths open throughout the convention to share their work and talk to convention guests throughout each day, including some inspiring professional cosplayers.
Burlesque and music. As the sun went down each night, things heated up in the main ballroom. Jessica Nova hosted a show full of nerdy burlesque performances that had the crowd throwing their dollars and shouting for more! Then, later, DJ Nemesis spun a mix of nerdy, nostalgic, and energizing tunes for a late-night dance party.
Check out the Nerdi Gras 2023 Party Guide to see the complete list of guests and events.
When I asked Kevin what’s ahead for Nerdi Gras in 2024 and beyond, he laid out the owners’ three-year plan. “The first year, we just wanted to have a successful show and the experience of planning a convention from start to finish. We expected to make lots of mistakes and learn lots of lessons. Year two, we want to tighten things up. Learn our lessons, and get our name out there a little more. We want to grow, but with the understanding that we’re a ‘baby con’ and we’re still finding our way.”
Going into the third year, Kevin hopes that they will hit their stride as a show and establish their identity within the convention scene. “We want to have an identifiable brand and start targeting real growth. Most stuff, more guests, just plain more.”
During the con wrap-up panel, Sparks, Kevin, and Phil welcomed suggestions from attendees on how to make the convention even better. “We will never stop learning and never stop listening to ideas from our fans,” Kevin told me. “We could sum up our philosophy as ‘I want to host the kind of convention that I’d really like to attend.'”
Kevin and the Krewe of Nerdi Gras share their gratitude for everyone who made Nerdi Gras happen:
“The community has been very supportive of us. Our volunteers are outstanding and have put forth a heroic effort to make this show happen. Our families and friends have spread the word about the show and supported us. Our vendors have been understanding that we’re new at this, and we’re still learning. Our artists and authors have been wonderful and have given us great feedback on moving forward. We really feel like folks want us to succeed, and that kind of support is special. We feel a lot of love for everyone who has been involved and a keen responsibility to take this and move it forward in a way we can all be proud of. Thank you!”
And, as Kevin puts it in full Nerdi Gras spirit, “Laissez les Nerd temps rouler!”