Julia Stent is commercial director at Top10, Europe’s leading independent hotel comparison and booking platform, where she leads the company in pioneering strategies around mobile monetisation, social inspiration and cross-device attribution. 

Julia joins the panel ’Digital Challenges and Opportunities for the Travel Vertical in 2015 and Beyond‘ at PMI: Europe 2015 next week, where she’ll draw on experience from all facets of the performance marketing industry, spanning the publisher, advertiser and affiliate network side. 

Julia, the last time we saw you Top10 were named ‘Best New Publisher’ at the Performance Marketing Awards 2015. That must have capped off a productive 12 months?

It’s been a pretty massive twelve months for us at Top10. The team has doubled in size and we’ve significantly invested in our product and marketing, meaning that we now account for 1% of hotel bookings in the UK in 2015. Our iPhone app was also launched last year and we’ve worked hard to rapidly grow adoption of mobile users and really drive our international user base.

It’s quite something to get that kind of recognition in a sector as competitive as travel. What do you think sets you apart from other publishers? 

In my opinion, it’s really challenging to enter the affiliate space now. You need a strong team, a first class product, great relationships and knowledge of the market, plus enough capital to really drive volume. If you compare this to ten years ago, it’s a whole different ball game.

We feel Top10 has a very clearly defined user need and the right timing for the market. We think customers are drowning in choice when it comes to booking a hotel. We give them recommendations that are right for them in a beautiful, easy to use experience. Most of all a sizeable growing audience wants this on the go and to work brilliantly on a mobile.

Next week, at PMI: Europe, you join a panel of experts from the likes of British Airways to tackle the digital challenges surrounding travel. Are there any points in particular you expect will be on the lips of your fellow speakers? 

I think our panel has a good mix of contributors, from the latest technology (Sean from PHG), to a mega brand in the travel space (British Airways), to a long-established online player (lastminute.com) and of course us, Top10! It should make for an interesting range of opinions… we’ve been discussing some of the topics we’re intending to cover and there’s a pretty lively debate going on already!

One of the hot topics you can expect to hear more on is the use of third-party booking engines from metasearch. We’ll be debating  who should own the customer relationship and how this should be branded. We’ll be exchanging views on how to make the experience as great as possible for the customer throughout the booking journey  - and how to actually convert these customers to booking on a mobile. 

On top of that, expect discussions on the role of Instagram for inspiration – how much should brands push the boundaries and take risks versus protecting their reputation? And the role mobile could play for different companies in the space, from being a rapidly growing source of bookings right through to engaging with your customers when they take your flight or stay in your hotel.

There’s a lot we want to cover, and we’ll also welcome questions from the audience – you’ll have to come along to find out more…

You have a wealth of experience working among publishers, advertisers and networks, and Top10 is clearly making an early name for itself. Where do you think the real opportunity in this sector now lies? 

I think the biggest opportunities lie in embracing mobile within the affiliate space. I’m not just talking here about “will my cashback track” or “will my voucher code get attributed to me”… Those things might be important, but I think a large part of the industry needs to take its head out of the sand and look at the much bigger picture. What does a customer actually want when they’re using a mobile device and how can my company answer that need?

For Top10, this is about using all of the functionality available on a mobile device to support our users’ experience. This helps us to actively make our product easier and more fun to use on a small screen. We’re also removing friction from every step of the process including the checkout, last week we were announced at Apple’s WWDC conference as one of their key apps to support the launch of Apple Pay in Europe. This kind of shift is a big change in the nature of the relationship between an advertiser and a publisher. It raises all sorts of points to consider, like how you share the relationship with the customer and how you communicate with them in the absolute best way you can together.

I think this is also throws up important questions for the role of a lot of intermediaries in the affiliate industry. Those at the forefront are enabling tracking of this kind of relationship. I would encourage others to start thinking hard about how they help affiliates with payment systems and purchase processes so they can enable mobile monetisation or risk getting left in the dust.

Do you think comparison sites are at threat from Google’s widespread, yet minimalist, alternatives?

I think the answer to that question varies greatly by industry. Google’s mission is to “organise the world’s information”… when they’re comparing a product that requires a series of data points to make a choice, I think they can provide a useful service to users. But when a product requires more than that – curation, editorial, explanation, recommendation or an otherwise “human” element, I don’t personally believe this is what they have historically specialised in. I saw this when they attempted to enter markets like broadband, energy and mobile phones, and I believe the same is true for hotels.

There are some interesting dynamics with regards to the real estate they give their own products versus those of third parties within their search results. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out from the European Commission formerly charging them with a Statement of Objections from anti-trust laws… $6.4 billion is a pretty big fine they’re being threatened with.

Looking more widely at the hotels market – there are a number of dominant players in the online space. Priceline & Expedia are two of the biggest corporations in the world. However, the hotels market is vast… 7.2 billion room nights were booked in 2013. Priceline & Expedia combined only account for 5% of that, which leaves plenty of space for other players. The most exciting part here is the rapid growth in customers moving to booking online, especially through their mobile. If you look at up and coming markets like Poland, Indonesia or UAE that space is growing at a rate of 20% year-on-year – that’s massive! It’s hugely exciting for us at Top10.

Finally, aside from your panel, are there any other sessions you’ve marked as unmissable?

I’m looking forward to the whole event, the European expos are hugely valuable for us as we expand our relationships internationally. Given the growth of Top10’s iPhone app globally this year, I’m particularly interested to hear the keynote on the first day from Apple’s Former Creative Director, Ken Segall. We were delighted that Top10 was named one of Apple’s ten Best Apps of 2014, but Apple keeps creative and editorial policies closely guarded. It’ll be really interesting to see how much an ex-employee of his seniority shares.

On top of that I’m looking forward to the networking events, catching up with current contacts and making new ones. I would encourage new attendees to really make the most of these. Come armed with business cards, a plan of who you want to speak to, and don’t be afraid to say hello! 

Register now to be part of Europe’s largest performance advertising conference touching down in Berlin in less than a week. Read up on the full Performance Marketing Insights: Europe 2015 agenda here.