As lockdowns begin to ease, location-based entertainment (LBE) is back on the march as people want to get out of their homes and do something different. There’s been an uptick of virtual reality (VR) focused locations either reopening or launching brand new experiences, allowing players to dive into movie and videogame franchises for the first time. Prior to the pandemic Sandbox VR was one operator that went from doing very well to declaring bankruptcy and then bouncing back by the end of 2020. It’s been expanding ever since and soon it’ll make its way to UK shores thanks to franchisee Andy Scanlon. VRFocus sat down with Andy to find out why he’s so excited about the industry’s future.
Unlike some VR arcades that use generic platform management systems to offer players immersive titles from a range of developers, Sandbox VR is one of the few operators that has its own exclusive titles like Amber Sky and Deadwood Mansion. They’re all designed in-house so visitors are getting a VR experience that’s unique and can’t be found anywhere else, one of the reasons why the company was doing so well pre-Covid.
Even so, starting up a new franchise is no small task, especially when you consider Scanlon plans on opening multiple locations across the UK starting with London. Cities including Birmingham, Manchester and more are all on the cards. Initially, London will see 2-3 sites open during 2021 before moving further afield.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
So how did you get into VR in the first place?
“Working in technology investment which I loved, that brought me to Singapore where I was working with entrepreneurs and investors, really supporting them by finding investment companies that were at the forefront of their particular industries, sorting out business models and their strategic direction.
“And quite serendipitously I found myself in a Sandbox VR venue, the one in Singapore, one of their longest-standing venues. I just remember taking off that headset for the first time after that 35 minute experience and that light bulb just being switched on. It changed the way I saw entertainment, it changed the way I saw social leisure. I’d been looking at VR for some time and to invest in a couple of companies in the UK and Singapore but I hadn’t looked at the location-based VR space at that time.
“That first experience I was with my partner and her three friends for her birthday, and it was just that moment where I saw what entertainment could be. I took that headset off and thought “this is it”, I can just see the industry evolving into something that hasn’t really been considered by 99.9% of people on the planet.
“There are around six LBE VR brands in Singapore so instantly the next day I booked to go see the other ones, went to Zero Latency went back to Sandbox and it was then that I thought “this is what I need to do“.
So how did that lead on to being a Sandbox VR franchisee?
“I reached out to Sandbox and reached out to Steve (Zhao, CEO) in Hong Kong and gave my back story and said have you thought about esports and this and this, it could be bigger than 3D that IMAX always promised, a true innovation step in leisure.
“So I probably spoke at him for 20 minutes before he said ‘have you thought about being a franchise?’ and I said no but the moment he said it I knew I would 100% do it. A couple of weeks later [after looking at the market] I said I think this could be huge in the UK, I’ve lived in London for a few years, I know what it’s like to do corporate events and beers after work with your team. If you look at the UK as a whole in terms of leisure density it’s got the highest [outside of China] leisure density – so that’s the highest number of venues per capita in the world.
“And so I thought Sandbox is the leading player in the space, it’s been highlighted by the amount of money they’ve been able to raise but also the direction under Steve. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the best experience that I had out of every VR experience I’d played to date.”
That deal was struck in 2020, mid-pandemic, mid-lockdown, you obviously had a very positive industry outlook for the future.
“To be honest, the way I think about it is that technology as a whole has been great during the pandemic to keep us connected but at the end of the day that’s always been a remote connection. This is why phrases such as ‘zoom fatigue’ have begun cropping up, people are just fed up with doing their weekly team meetings over Zoom. So the way I see it from a sociological perspective is the demand for shared group activities has only increased during the pandemic as we’ve been torn away from each other. I feel, personally – and everyone I speak to – is that when we’re in lockdown all you really want to do is go to the pub with your mates or do something with your mates and colleagues. And so we haven’t been too concerned about the sociological impact from the pandemic, we don’t think it’s going to impact social leisure shared experiences over the long term.
“Obviously we are concerned about future lockdowns, if we can’t be open that’s a concern. I don’t think that Covid will disappear at the end of this year or even next year but I think it’s an easy to overcome hurdle. Firstly due to Sandbox, as it has demonstrated across its network that most of the venues that Sandbox has they’re actually trading above pre-pandemic levels. Secondly, the actual experience or customer journey that Sandbox offers is very geared towards maintaining and adhering to safety standards when it comes to Covid-19.
“The demand for shared experience has only increased during the pandemic and we are looking to provide customers with an experience that they can enjoy with their friends and family. For us a real passion project behind the company, to build a business that can see people remind themselves why they like to go out and organise things with their friends. Because what we’re offering is better than anything on the market at the moment.”
So how will the UK roll out work and what can customers expect?
“So the VR rooms are called Holodecks like Star Trek and are about a quarter of the size of a Zero Latency room [for reference]. What Sandbox does really well is it uses the gameplay and the map to walk over your [previous] steps so it feels like a different room. So it’s a smaller room but what that allows us to do is really bring this technology to city centres, focusing on where the masses are, whether that’s shopping centres or actual city centres, something most of our competitors can’t do.
“We obtained the UK franchise that gives us exclusive rights to bring Sandbox VR to this market. We’re looking to launch a large number of venues across a pretty short timeframe, across five years, starting with London but we’re looking at the whole country. Following one to two locations in London, we’ll then be looking to go to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, all kinds of large cities where we think the technology will do well.
“We’re looking at city-centre locations at around 6000 to 10,000 sq ft, we’d like to have around four to five Holodecks in each venue. That allows us to offer multiple start times, we’re not just reliant on one or two Holodecks, people can arrive and leave pretty quickly. What we’re looking for is to build this social environment where people are coming and going, there to enjoy the VR. In addition to the VR, something that’s not being done across any Sandbox venue in the world, none of them currently offer food and beverage. We will be the first Sandbox venue to offer food and beverage, to not offer that I think would be a misstep. So we’re looking to develop a really futuristic venue with a robotic bartender, we want people to feel like they’re entering London 2068, so very cool, very futuristic.”
VR has that futuristic vibe but how do you get around the general public’s uncertainty regarding the tech?
“As long as you’re aware of that you can focus and design your marketing campaigns around that, you have to make sure you spend more time on the education piece rather than the “come to Sandbox VR”, it needs to be “what is location-based VR?” What I really like about it, and I don’t know whether it is because I’m an optimist, is that the lack of awareness of it ensures that the gap between post-experience and pre-experience is greater because people don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.
“You can only do that with a high degree of confidence that the product and the experience are good enough. You don’t need to educate everyone to the nth degree that they know exactly what they’re going into but know that just through word of mouth, that once people do it once they’re going to tell all their friends and post on social media.”
With 14 Sandbox VR locations open worldwide when will the UK venue debut?
“That’s the big question. We’re targeting Q1 2022, likely a soft launch gearing up to a hard launch at the end of Easter. Then site number two during the summer and possibly squeezing in a third by the end of the year.”