Over the past eight years, Ruby Assembly has worked with a wide variety of Australian businesses across all categories; property developers, galleries, lawyers, retailers, therapists, real estate agents, brokers, window cleaners, hoteliers, restaurants, psychics … you name it, we’ve done it.

Over the coming month, we’ll be presenting you with Ruby Assembly’s ‘Social Media for Business’ series, featuring Australian business leaders from a range of disciplines offering insights into their category of expertise, reflecting on their career trajectory and remarking on business ownership more generally. The first in our series is Donna Zimbardi of award-winning luxury accommodation Aquabelle apartments on the Mornington Peninsula. Warm, engaging and whip-smart, Donna generously shares her story and hard-won knowledge on the accommodation business that’s got the Mornington Peninsula abuzz.

Iolanthe: When you were a kid, what did you think that your profession would be? 

Donna: My Dad suggested that a good career for a woman was an air hostess, working in an office, or working for him.

I: How did your Dad’s worldview inform your career progression?

D: My Dad came from a generation that wasn’t totally educated. Dad, however, encouraged me to do a Rotary exchange student scholarship when I finished school.

I: So you didn’t have any firm ideas about the future?

D: No. I never did. By the time I returned from a Rotary exchange to Texas after school, everyone was ensconced in their tertiary education or work, typing school, or whatever they were doing. So I went and worked for my Dad.

I: And are there any personality traits that you displayed as little Donna that have continued on to be a strength throughout your life, informing the business you run now?

D: Yeah. Absolutely. I grew up on Rottnest Island. At school, we were a band of merry men – there was probably only seventeen of us. After school we would always go off and make cubbies or explore the island. One of my favourite things to do was to make cubby houses, I always loved to rake under the tea trees and canopies and have things hanging down from the boughs. So I think I always wanted to play house. I mean, there’s been some progressions along the way, but these preferences inform what I love to do. Which is, making homes. Making spaces that make people feel warm and comfortable and happy!

I: Oh, that’s really beautiful. I find when I ask that question there’s always a personality trait that has continued into adult life as a strength. What do you enjoy most about being a business owner?

D: Flexibility. From the moment your kids go to school, your flexibility goes out the window. I mean, your working week goes out the window, because the kids always finish at 3:30 pm. Both my husband and I worked in advertising with 60 and 70-hour weeks as relatively normal experienced. And you just can’t do that with little kids. So we decided that was it – I would step down from my twenty-year career. Which I was very sad about initially,  I didn’t cope too well in the first couple years. Just ’cause I was lonely, I think. And Aquabelle really was born out of that need to be around for my kids.

I: And did you find the idea of being a businessperson as opposed to being a high-level executive a big shift?

D: Well I never thought of it as being a business owner. I just saw it as something that we wanted to do collectively as a family. I guess, you’re probably the first person that actually said I was a businessperson. Sometimes I’m the marketing manager, sometimes I’m the DM, and sometimes I’m the owner. So it is what it is.

I: So how do you delight your customers? What sets you apart from other people in your accommodation category?

D: Aquabelle as a holiday space has got a bit of a personality, an edge and a quirk. It’s very much me. And I think that would be my encouragement to people wanting to have a space that they rent out for holiday. Actually layer it with your sense of style and personality – spots within the accommodation that leave the opportunity for little smiles. Because I think when you walk into a corporate-y luxe hotel or even a motel – they’re just devoid of personality. The only personality those places have are the parlour magazines they choose to offer; sometimes there might be a Woman’s Weekly or a business-y thing. It’s the only thing that changes in the whole place. We change Aquabelle constantly. Just yesterday we were at IKEA, as we’re gonna throw out our soft furnishings and put in gorgeous new stuff.  If we’re bored cleaning it every day and seeing the same thing, we don’t want a repeat guest to come in and go, “Nothing’s changed?” We want a little surprise every time they come.

I: So your investment of personality in Aquabelle has been your strength?

D: Yeah. I think so.  One of the first reviews we ever got was for Apartment One, which is a huge apartment, it’s 167 square metres. They described it as cavernous. For me, space has always been luxury. So whilst this criticism hurt, I took it upon myself as an opportunity to make the apartments less cavernous. Every time we put something to that apartment, it’s just another layer of personality. Sometimes people ask me to define Aquabelle’s style.  And I would say … “We have a bit of Danish, we have seaside, we have this and that.” The layering is what makes it homely.

I: What do you think the biggest challenge is facing your industry?

D: People are saying that AirBnB is having an impact on the traditional accommodation businesses on the Mornington Peninsula, but I say embrace it. Just throw your business on there! Even if it’s not giving you a booking, you’re exposing your business to five million people.

I: That’s a really positive way of thinking about a disruptor many in your industry are frightened of. 

D: Well you have to think positively.  I don’t know – I sometimes wonder if a taxi drivers – when they’re not working – could actually be Uber drivers? I think as a business owner in the accommodation space, you’ve just gotta wake up to the fact that market forces predict and tell you where you need to focus.  AirBnB has made everyone wake up, because everyone is now an accommodation provider. You know, the little shop next door that’s got an apartment upstairs is now a competitor to Aquabelle in the accommodation market.

I: How important a role does marketing, communications, and social media play in Aquabelle’s success?

D: Oh, it’s huge. In terms of brand personality, it’s unbeatable. It’s the best platform to communicate externally what you’ve created within your business. So if anyone said, “How would you describe Aquabelle?” We’d sort of say, “cheeky, but professional.” Or, a sense of fun, blue – a combination of all the things that our social media and advertising do together. In fact, I had somebody say the other day that I should change all of my corporate stuff to reflect my social content, which I think is really strong. It’s a really good pat on the head to my social media team.

I: You were an early adopter of social media marketing for business on the Mornington Peninsula. Why do you think there’s such reticence for boutique operators to  become more interactive with their brand in that space?

D: I think a lot of them are not early adopters of anything: they’re mostly traditionalists. I’m actually in the middle of the old and the new myself. Part of their resistance is to do with a lack of knowledge about social media. Aquabelle came on with Ruby Assembly when I was trying to do it myself. I was probably very active from the perspective of my competitors down there – but we’ve jumped ahead in leaps and bounds now. I think that a lot of the bed and breakfast operators are just older and are scared of it what social media means for them. But it’s becoming so mainstream now. Some of them probably don’t see the return on their investment on social media marketing, too.

I: Talking about return on investment, I’m glad you brought that subject up. Some business owners are really stymied by the idea that there is no easy metric for return on investment with social media. They can’t understand why one would persist in creating social media content without having discernible ROI. What would you say to people who are really hung up on wanting to make that connection?

D: Well, there is one particular metric I used it the other day. Google Analytics shows where your leads are generated from. I’ve been paying TripAdvisor an extraordinary amount of money so that I’ll receive click-throughs from their TripAdvisor page. I received a ROI of just 1%, which has given me the ammunition to say to them, “it’s not working.” My return on investment via Instagram and Facebook is much higher, and much clearer. So for me, Google Analytics reports are enough.

I: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to someone thinking about entering the accommodation space?

D: I think that accommodation needs to reflect an individual rather than attepting to be cookie-cutter. My time in advertising taught me about unique selling propositions, the USP. What’s the USP of your accommodation business? What’s the one thing that’s gonna set you apart? Aquabelle’s might be the view, but I think it’s the lead-up to the view. The view’s kind of the moment of delight at the end. I think just be authentic – don’t write your website to sound all corporate, write as if you’re talking to somebody directly. Just be who you are: be the person you are so that whatever you do is a reflection of you or your family or brand. Don’t take yourself out of the equation. I think it took me a while to want to be that person behind the brand – but when you’re reading TripAdvisor reviews and every one mentions your name, you think, “Maybe I’m on to something.”

I: Can you please tell me about the two objects you brought with you today. What do they mean to you?

D: They’re not sentimental. The reason that my headphones are an object of importance to me is because much of what I do is by myself. And because I need to be near or hear other people, I’m constantly listening to podcasts.

I: I get it! I also have podcast ‘mates’!

D: I’m a big lover of female-centric business – I love Mamamia and listening to Mia Freedman talk to all manner of women in business and in public life. I get a lot out of that. I think she’s untapped an inner feminism in me, particularly as I’m raising a son and a daughter. I think this feminism is really playing into how I’m phrasing things in front of them. I think modern feminism is not about burning bras or being hairy; it’s about saying, “No! Equality!” I just want the right to choose.

Iolanthe: That was awesome! Thank you for that! What’s your second object of import?

D: It’s my handwritten log of bookings. It shows how I’m between eras, between recording the written and the electronic. I need to visually see something written before it feels like it’s real. This handwritten log allows me to go anywhere in the world and still run Aquabelle. This is my third logbook. It makes me feel safe. I grew up in a hotel, and my Dad used to use logbooks too. This is the little version.

I: What do you feel has been your biggest business success? 

D: I think it was our VTIC award – winning Gold for the Self Contained Accommodation in Victoria is huge. But taking a step back, I don’t think the awards made my business more successful. I think winning the award was something I had to do to prove to myself that I was up there with the best in the industry.

I:  What has been a mistake that you’ve learned from in business? 

D: I think every day there’s something to learn. Sometimes I try to be all business-y and have rules, but I’ve learned to just relax a bit. Sometimes, a customer will cancel their booking. You might get all uppity and say, “Well, you know, you’re going have to pay a fee to cancel.” But when you dig a little deeper,  you might find out their husband has just been diagnosed with MS. This knowledge changes your approach altogether. So just stay human.

Are you a business in the accommodation or hospitality industry? Perhaps Ruby Assembly can help. Visit our website to dowload our free eBook ‘Social Media SOS’ here.
Photography: Breeana Dunbar. Shot on location at Brunswick East.