Aylang Lou occupies a unique position at the crux of tech and retail. As Sandbox VR’s SVP of stores, Lou leads her team through the acquisition, construction, deployment and ongoing operation of the company’s retail stores throughout the world. She’s essentially in charge of making sure the rubber hits the road when it comes to Sandbox VR’s socially immersive virtual reality gaming experience.
Lou has a simpler way of expressing what she and the Sandbox VR team do, though; they “sell fun.”
And they do so in a way that brings people together in person.
“Our mission is to bring people closer together through world-class immersive experiences,” Lou said. “We see it as our job to help adults find fun in new ways, by helping them build new connections with others.”
In 2021, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project published a study identifying ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic was inflaming an “epidemic of loneliness in America.” In that study, 61 percent of adults under 25 and 51 percent of mothers with young children reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.” By March of 2023, it had become clear to health policy professionals — including U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy who discussed loneliness with The Washington Post’s Leana S. Wen this March — that the exacerbated loneliness experienced during the pandemic was not simply going away.
That epidemic loneliness was also operating alongside or in conjunction with what Georgetown University’s Christine Porath diagnosed as a marked increase in incivility — particularly directed at frontline workers in health, hospitality and retail increasingly. Those workers reported rudeness, disrespect and insensitive behavior as socially disconnected people returned to in-person activities feeling angry, bereaved and alone.
In light of these two phenomena, selling fun has perhaps never been a more important, challenging and ultimately rewarding undertaking.
“We see a lot of first and second dates at our stores,” Lou said. “It’s humbling to hear our guests put that kind of trust in our product, and it reminds us of how important the guest experience is.”
Sandbox VR’s dedicated team of retail, corporate and tech professionals aim to deliver the most immersive and social virtual reality experience ever created. At retail locations throughout three continents, groups of up to six players can participate in large-scale full-body virtual reality experiences, from fighting aliens and zombies in post-apocalyptic landscapes to joining the team aboard Star Trek’s USS Discovery as they explore strange new worlds.
What are some challenges and rewards associated with bringing a new high-tech entertainment experience to brick-and-mortar locations?
In 2020, the retail industry underwent a disruption like we’ve never seen in our lifetimes. As we re-emerged from Covid-19, people have changed what they’re looking for when they go out. Our next-gen entertainment has shown there’s so much more to do beyond eating, drinking and shopping, and Sandbox VR complements some of these other more traditional retail outlets very well.
How is Sandbox VR uniquely positioned to grow and succeed in the wake of the pandemic?
We’ve found that this disruption has been a great opportunity for us, as we operate what are called “magnet” locations. That means our stores drive diverse groups of people to major shopping areas. Our stores are a welcoming space for the community to explore new worlds together. The pandemic has made it clear that people crave meaningful connections more than ever before. Our large-room, completely untethered virtual reality experiences offer a unique opportunity for people to share an adventure, whether it’s saving the world from aliens in our Amber Sky 2088 experience or exploring a pirate ship in The Curse of Davy Jones.
The pandemic has made it clear that people crave meaningful connections more than ever before.”
After finishing an experience, these guests are more likely to stay in the retail centers, helping revitalize businesses that have been trying to find their footing in the wake of Covid-19. This is a great vehicle for our growth, and it’s helped us build great real estate partnerships, which has helped us scale further.
We are proud to have quadrupled our number of stores over the last two years, with many more to come. Our goal is to create a global network of Sandbox VR locations with continually expansive worlds people can explore with strangers, friends or family.
What has been successful about Sandbox VR’s approach in terms of educating customers what is, in many ways, an unprecedented entertainment product?
Our team. Getting to see our team’s enthusiasm for our product gets me most excited. Our team members serve as both our viral influencers and our most important source of feedback for how we can continue to grow our guest base. Our experiences begin from the point someone enters a store. And our store teams have all done a fantastic job helping deliver a world-class, immersive experience unlike anything our guests have ever experienced before.
Georgetown University’s Christine Porath recently published a series of articles in the Harvard Business Review outlining what she calls an increase in incivility — among public-facing workers and in general — since the pandemic began. Is this something that Sandbox has experienced and is attuned to?
Some of my peers in other retail organizations are dealing with a lot of customer incivility, especially in food service. It’s disappointing to see an erosion in how people treat front-line staff, and I’ve made it my mission to ensure we protect our team from that.
Selling fun makes it easier. How can a customer be mad after fending off a zombie horde with your friends for the last 30 minutes? We have found that, for all the fun our guest experience guides deliver, our guests make it fun for us too.
I like that Sandbox is the place where people can have fun while they work.
How can a customer be mad after fending off a zombie horde with your friends for the last 30 minutes?”
In the rare circumstances where challenges occur, we learn and we grow. We are collecting feedback at every step in the guest journey. That feedback gets used to implement new protocols and guidelines to ensure the safety of our team members and guests, and it continues to help us improve on our guest experience.
How would you describe Sandbox VR’s mission and core values? How do these tie into your approach to customer service at the retail level?
We have three core values: be egoless, embrace an underdog mindset and win collectively. As I look at all the other options people have for where they can work, I truly believe our mission, values and opportunity to “sell fun” are what makes Sandbox special.
Our mission is to bring people closer together through world-class immersive experiences.”
What do you find most rewarding about your work with Sandbox VR?
I love our unique take on virtual reality, making it accessible to everyone in ways that go beyond what people used to consider “gaming.” We feel like we’re pioneering a new entertainment medium that captures the same type of child-like wonder and excitement I see from my kids and their friends.
I think we can all agree that the world would be a better place if everyone had a little more wonder and excitement in their lives, and I love that our teams are so passionate about sharing this with our guests.
What are you excited to accomplish next with the company?
I am thrilled about the prospect of creating new career growth opportunities for our store teams. As we grow, that opens a wealth of opportunities for our current team to grow with us. I have been fortunate to have had great mentors who have invested in my career development, and I’m now in a position where I can help create that same opportunity for others.
We have a talented group of individuals working here, and I am confident that by providing the development, tools and resources they need to grow, we can unlock their full potential. This past quarter alone, we promoted 8 percent of our entire 600 person global workforce into expanded roles within the company, and we’re investing in those same team members more every single day.