I just got back from Dragon*Con 2010 in Atlanta, had an amazing time, and came straight here to share my thoughts with you.
It is an interesting conference. Although 99% of it is a celebration of geek culture, fantasy, sci-fi, gaming, entertainment, comics, art, and just about anything else you can think of, its Skeptic Track (under the capable guidance of Skepticality's Derek Colanduno) has grown to be one of the world's largest critical thinking gatherings. Its differentiating factor is that outside the door of the 350-seat Skeptic Track room pass 70,000 other conference attendees, and it's thus uniquely positioned for outreach. And outreach it did: Talks by James Randi and Adam Savage draw such large audiences that they are out in the main halls, where hundreds of non-skeptics hear them. Both discussed The Amazing Meeting and skepticism by name. Both probably piqued a lot of interest, if not converts, and probably put curious butts in the seats of the Skeptic Track room.
Skeptoid has a bare bones budget, and as such, I have to be very careful about where I spend money. Dragon*Con is fun, but it's not right for me to spend my budget (most of which is donated) on fun. It's best spent on outreach, which I define as anything that increases the size of the audience. This year turned out to be unexpectedly successful for me as far as outreach is concerned, as I was fortunate enough to win the Parsec Award (one of the most prestigious podcast awards, and given out at Dragon*Con) for Skeptoid. I got direct feedback from a number of people who only learned of Skeptoid because of that, and tuned in as a result. The Parsec will, no doubt, continue to be an ongoing source of promotion for Skeptoid, and by extension, for critical thinking as a whole.
To be honest, I very nearly did not attend this year, because I was dubious of the value. Dragon*Con is very expensive. The hotel is full 5-star hotel priced, for 5 nights, and it's a cross-country flight. It's the most expensive conference I've attended on behalf of Skeptoid by a wide margin. I ended up going, and only at the last minute, only because so many east coast fans emailed to ask me to come. Flattery gets my fans everywhere, so I went, and had a fabulous time with everyone. (The camaraderie is by far the best part of the conference.)
Much discussion was had among myself and the other speakers about outreach, and how best to leverage such conferences. I was surprised to learn that there is not a consensus, and that some folks prefer that conferences be only for the enjoyment of the attendees and not about reaching new audiences. I disagree, and consider outreach to be, overwhelmingly, the most important reason to have a conference. Randi and Adam, and other popular names like Brian Brushwood and Jamy Ian Swiss and George Hrab, accomplish this in spades. When these folks gave their talks, the rooms were bursting at the seams with non-Skeptic Track attendees, and this put huge smiles on our faces. I wouldn't spend Skeptoid money on a conference that was for my enjoyment only, but I would spend money on a conference that increases the visibility of critical thinking and helps to make it more mainstream.
Without a doubt, the quality of the lineup that Derek assembled for Dragon*Con 2010 rivaled that of any other critical thinking conference I've attended. Kudos to him for putting on a fabulous show (and to Swoopy for her equally fabulous podcasting track), and I hope to see many more in the future.