Elizabeth Derczo

Organizing genius of the Hot Sauce Festival

Elizabeth Derczo
Photo by John Anderson

Since its inception in 1991, thousands of people have attended the annual Austin Chron­icle Hot Sauce Festivals. They've all parked someplace, submitted contest entries, tasted and voted on hundreds of hot sauces, munched on chips, enjoyed cold beverages, boogied to the bands on stage, sheltered under tents, lined up for potties, purchased festival T-shirts, and generally had a grand time participating in what's become an Austin institution in the blistering August heat.

It's unlikely that many attendees ever spare much thought to how each festival comes together, how the gears turn to make it all happen. It's human nature that when things function as they're supposed to, we don't notice underlying structure. We simply roll with a pleasant experience and go home satisfied.

Nonetheless, it's a fact that large public events are the sum of a zillion interlocking details, the result of planning, organization, and expertise. In the case of the Hot Sauce Festival, Elizabeth Derczo of Austintatious Events is the engine that makes it all go. And – calmly, purposefully, cheerfully – she's been doing it every single year since 1991.

"As far as the public goes," Derczo says, "the ideal situation is that things run so smoothly that they have no idea what all happened to make it work." Although she's the woman in charge, she's quick to point out that the festival is a total collaborative effort. "The Chronicle's promotions, production, editor­ial, and advertising departments are all critical to the event's success. Robb Walsh [original conceiver of the festival idea] oversees the contest judging process. There are 200 to 250 volunteers, with another 100 Food Bank volunteers managing the donations and running the raffle."

Experience counts. "I enjoy working with the city departments. They know I'm going to do everything I can to make the event go well," Derczo continues. "They know I follow the rules; they can trust me to do everything right." She's proud of the fact that in 20 years, there's been only one minor security incident and zero illness complaints.

In addition to staging the Hot Sauce Festival, Derczo works the rest of the year organizing for South by Southwest. A native of DeSoto, Texas, she always wanted to be an event promoter and never wavered from her goal. "The first concert I attended was Rod Stewart and Faces at Moody Auditorium in Dallas when I was 14," she remembers. After studying radio-television-film and business communications at UT, she interned at Roadstar Productions and started her first company right out of college. In the course of her career, she's promoted concerts for Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Todd Rundgren, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Jeff Walker, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. "I've been incredibly lucky," she says. "I met the right people at the right time, and things just fell into place."

After 20 years of doing the Hot Sauce Festival, what's the hardest part about putting it all together? "Probably the layout, although I think I have a pretty good setup at Waterloo, and it doesn't change much," Derczo says. "But every year, I walk the site with a measuring wheel. I love Waterloo because it's got lots of trees and shade. This year, after the rains, there's even grass!"

If you're thinking about a career in event production, Derczo has some simple advice: "Start volunteering. There are several companies in town, and all kinds of events need enthusiastic volunteers. Get some exposure and experience; meet as many people in the business as you can. Networking is always the answer." In Derczo's case, hard work, focus, and determination might have something to do with it, too.

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