Building an ecosystem that is bespoke to a small business

Darren Burn is the founder of luxury LGBT travel company and also Managing Director of the world's most visited LGBT travel website,

I've always found technology fascinating and so when I decided that my small travel business could do with a new booking system, I enjoyed trying out lots of new off-the-shelf solutions.

However, after every demo, I was left with the feeling that something was missing. And that something was control. I wouldn't necessarily count myself as a control freak (though I'm sure some of my team would tell you otherwise!), but the challenge of building our own booking tool both excited and terrified me. But I knew it would give me the ability to define our own success and give me the control I craved in growing my business.

So when I started looking for ways to build this booking tool (that weren't going to cost me millions!), Zoho came up in my research. Zoho Creator and Zoho CRM to be specific.

And that's where Escapade was born from. Escapade is our own internal booking tool that allows us to build incredible luxury itineraries for our clients. We specialize in LGBT+ travel but end up planning trips for everyone. And yes, I used my own personal love of Janet Jackson to name the tool after one of her songs.

Escapade is a completely customized booking tool built with Zoho Creator. It integrates with Zoho CRM and allows us to build beautiful quotes for our clients and ensure we stay on top of what can sometimes be extremely laborious tasks to ensure that we've built the perfect itinerary for them. And compared to our last tool, which I won't name but was an off-the-shelf system built specifically for travel businesses, I'm proud to say that ours is even better. It has more functionality and allows us to adapt and improve it all the time.

When the pandemic hit, we realized very quickly that we had to change and improve our system to deal with the complexities and challenges that came with running a travel business. We created new reports, we added new functionality to track customer requests and supplier refunds, and we improved the look and feel of our system to make our team's lives easier. If we'd had an off-the-shelf system, it might have done the same... but it might not have, too.

Since we started using Zoho on the side of the business, we have discovered a whole suite of Zoho's other products. We now use the following products:

- Zoho CRM: To maintain clean customer information data
- Zoho Creator: As our custom planning and booking tool
- Zoho Campaigns: As our marketing platform to email clients
- Zoho Cliq: For our internal team chat
- Zoho Desk: To ensure we are dealing with laborious administration in a simple way
- Zoho Flow: To make automation and notifications simpler within our business
- Zoho Mail: We were previously paying Google a separate license fee for Gmail
- Zoho WorkDrive: Similar to the situation with Gmail, our Zoho One license fee already had this included, so we left Google Drive
- Zoho Subscriptions: On the side of the business, we keep track of our advertising and partnerships from a B2B perspective
- Zoho People: To take care of our staff's leave and HR functions
- Zoho Analytics: We crunch our data and build helpful dashboards to stay on top of management information
- Zoho Recruit: We find new talent for our growing businesses thanks to its integration with job boards
- Zoho Zeptomail: to send transactional mail from our website

So you can see we clearly love Zoho and use it a lot. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it's always a perfect product. As with any software solution, there can be some quirks and challenges, and you can find the topics I've written on the help forums when we have run into those. But what I appreciate about Zoho is that they always help us find a solution.

Their competitive and transparent pricing is fair and certainly for small businesses the value that can be had from their suite of products is unmatched in the marketplace—and I should know, I've researched almost every tool out there! And to wrap up, in the words of one of Janet Jackson's most famous songs... "Cos it's all about control, and I've got lots of it!"

Read more about Out of Office's experience with Zoho one in their case study here


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