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The History of Holiday Barn Pet Resorts

 The history of Holiday Barn Pet Resorts could best be described as a love story… Two people who fell in…

Part I: The Origin of Holiday Barn

 The history of Holiday Barn Pet Resorts could best be described as a love story… Two people who fell in love, who also love animals, music, family, people, their community, and church, driven to make a difference in an industry influenced by our love for pets. Two people who never lost sight of their vision despite financial resistance, preconceived public notions, and even personal challenges.

Emerson Hughes and Kathy Lawyer started dating the second semester of their freshman year in college. As money was tight for these young students, they spent much of their courtship visiting parks and exploring the countryside to watch or visit the animals. Kathy enjoyed playing with farm animals and was especially captivated with ducks and pigs. At one farm they visited, she fell in love with an adorable family of pigs. Em took pleasure in seeing how much Kathy enjoyed the pigs, and when he surprised her one day with the gift of a little piglet, she knew that he was the one. Kathy laughs when telling of Emerson’s “romantic” marriage proposal, while she was covered in hair and grooming a 1-eyed springer spaniel at her home in New Jersey.

The newlyweds started their journey in a small, older home on Patterson Avenue in Richmond. It did not take long to realize that their house just wasn’t big enough for them and all their pets, so they jumped at the chance to purchase a 7-acre plot of land “out in the country.” Actually, it was in Glen Allen, but in 1965, Glen Allen was seven miles from the city and was a very rural area. The Mountain Road property had a barn and an old two-story home in serious need of repair. For the next 6 years, Emerson worked on making that old house livable, but it sure wasn’t easy.

To help feed their two horses, a pony, chickens, a couple of pigs, and a silly goat named Figaro, Emerson planted their seven acres with corn. He harvested it himself with a borrowed tractor from his good neighbors, the Hegamyers. Whatever corn the animals didn’t eat was sold for profit.

It was hard to prioritize “farming,” working, and home repairs, but when the old horsehair plaster ceiling in the bathroom fell in on Kathy while she was bathing, suddenly house repairs took priority. Thank goodness Em had some experience, having worked in construction during his summer jobs while in college. He also worked as a plumber’s helper, and a carpenter laborer. Who knew those skills would become so valuable in his future as a homeowner and business owner?

Em and Kathy had a particular passion for dogs, especially Springer Spaniels. During the first years of their marriage, they began raising Springers on their property in Glen Allen. Although they loved teaching music and performing, as was their profession, they loved working with their spaniels just as well. Driven by his passion for his dogs, Em started looking beyond teaching for something to do with animals. While chatting with their friend and veterinarian, Dr. Bill Clark at Three Chopt Animal Hospital, Bill mentioned that there were lots of good dog hotel businesses all over the country and told Em he should look into it. Em and Kathy certainly had the space for a kennel on their property, and Kathy had some “know-how,” as her parents had owned a small kennel in New Jersey. It was a perfect idea.</>two men and dog

For Em and Kathy, a “typical” dog kennel just would not do. They wanted dogs and cats to have more than just a fenced-in concrete enclosure with an outdoor area, as was common for boarding kennels at that time. They wanted a “professional” operation. They wanted it to be modern, appealing, safe, and clean. Em and Kathy wanted their kennel to be a place where people would be comfortable leaving their pets while they were away.

Financing for the scale and scope of the type of business they were proposing was not easily obtained. It was the early 1970’s and this had never been done before. Lenders did not think a kennel was a good investment. Em made 11 financing requests of area banks. “I could hear the Bankers laughing as I left the building”, Em said. Luckily, three of Emerson’s acquaintances worked on the lending committee at “Heritage Savings and Loan” and finally, on Em’s 12th attempt at financing, the S&L took a leap of faith and approved the loan. Em asked a colleague, the drafting teacher at Highland Springs where he was teaching, to draw up the plans based on his ideas.

Dr. Clark and his good friend (and fellow animal lover), Wayne Batty, were excited about Em and Kathy’s decision to pursue a boarding kennel for pets. Wayne was helpful during the construction of the kennel and Dr. Clark was a tremendous source of information. Bill and Wayne were, in fact, the original stockholders of the forthcoming “Holiday Barn Kennel.” Local builders, Billy Kindervater and Marvin Seay built the building with Em’s guidance. The small business loan from “Heritage Savings and Loan” was not enough to complete the construction, so Em was hands-on, doing a lot of the construction himself. The three men actually laid the cinder block and built the roof system themselves. That initial building is now the main entrance to the Glen Allen location. Behind today’s reception area stands the original lobby, complete with wooden shiplap and wagon wheels.

In 1972, “Holiday Barn Kennel” was born, and so was Em and Kathy’s second child, Bekah. Em, Kathy, 5-year old son, Michael, and infant daughter, Bekah lived in the old home in front of the kennel on Mountain Road, which, still standing, we now affectionately refer to as “the blue house.”

Em and Kathy are often asked how they came up with the name “Holiday Barn.” Although it hints at the hotel chain “Holiday Inn,” that was not an influence in their decision. One of the common uses of a barn is to shelter animals, so living out in the country as they were, was an obvious choice. The “holiday” part was suggested by their good British friend who advised them that “…You don’t go on vacation; you go on holiday!”

The initial services offered by the new kennel were dog boarding, cat boarding, dog grooming, and some retail. In these early stages, young “Pet Petters” were hired to provide affection to boarding guests. It was through their customers that Em and Kathy recognized that simply caring for the pets by way of a clean, safe environment, was not enough. Pet parents often expressed their concern about their pet being confined and bored while they were away. The staff began talking about providing the boarders with something to do. The kennel mindset quickly transformed from simply “animal care” to “animal fun.” Influenced by the activity sheet on a cruise line, fun activities were added to the kennel offerings. The now “retired” VIP (Very Important Pet) was the very first play package introduced, providing field walks and treats. Frosty Paws doggie ice cream was also added to the of people with pets

Before the grooming area was built at the kennel, Kathy groomed dogs in the kitchen of her home, with infant Bekah in a bassinet in the next room. When grooming was finally moved into its new area upstairs in the kennel, Bekah and her bassinet went along. One day while grooming, Kathy heard a dog barking repeatedly. She went downstairs to quiet the dogs so that they would not disturb their neighbors but was baffled when she found the dogs resting quietly. When the barking resumed, she followed the sound to Bekah’s bassinet in an adjoining room. Bekah was the one barking! Em and Kathy’s little girl began barking before she had even begun to talk!

Living next door to your business sounds like a great departure from the daily commute to work, but it is not all that it’s cracked up to be. It felt like they were open for business 24/7. People would stop by their home to pick up their pets regardless of posted business hours. “Rest” was hard to come by. The dogs at the kennel would begin barking in the middle of the night and Kathy would traipse through the field in her pajamas to quiet them down. Just as she would get back in bed and start dozing off, they would start again. Then Em would pull on his boots and traipse through the field to quiet them. At some point, they learned that the dogs were soothed by music, so they took their portable radio up to the kennel and let it play in the evenings when Em & Kathy were busy with dinner and family time. The dogs began to sleep peacefully through the night… and so did Em and Kathy!

Em was still teaching chorus at Henrico High School, and Kathy was still performing. Em was the Marketing Director for the Richmond Symphony and part-time choral director at Randolph Macon College. They were also active with their church choir. Their firstborn, Michael, was still very young, and Kathy was feeling the squeeze of having two small children at home, owning a business, music jobs outside of the home, and caring for a grandmother who became ill during this time. Em had to work other jobs to pay for the start-up business, which, of course, was not profitable in the beginning. It was a busy and difficult time, but they were happy doing what they loved. Tired, but happy.

Relief came by way of the many young people that Em taught in chorus or who sang in the church choir and then consequently hired to care for the dogs in the kennel. Em and Kathy speak fondly of the young people that they employed during the early days. They talk about their eagerness to help, all that they were capable of doing, and their love for the pets. They talk about all the fun times they had with all of them. They remember them by name and smile as they relay stories of funny happenings and kennel “romances.” They recognized from the beginning that their employees were an important part of their success.

Part II: Early Innovative Renovations

Early on, the kennel would undergo some significant renovations. As the public expected all kennels have an outdoor run for their dog, rain, snow, and vermin were a problem. Plus, with all that concrete and metal, it was just loud. Em and Kathy came up with the idea of building an enclosure around the outdoor run… another innovation not seen in other kennels. And just like that, the roof was insulated, and the walls went up! The warm, heated sleeping area was separated from the outdoor area with guillotine-style doors so that they could be closed off at night. Dogs still had their own private access to a fresh air run area, but their runs were much safer and cleaner… and quieter.

Another innovation was Em’s design and construction of the double-decker kennel system; large dogs underneath, smaller dogs on top, separated by concrete, and each having their own outdoor run. Around 1974, the kennel was gutted, and the double-decker concept came to be. This, of course, doubled the number of pets Holiday Barn could care for, from 50+/- to around 110 dogs and cats.

Holiday Barn joined the ABKA, the American Boarding and Kennel Association, in 1977 and quickly learned that their kennel ranked very high in terms of building quality, offerings, and care compared to other kennels nationwide. Only three kennels obtained this ranking, the other two in California and New Jersey. Emerson’s expertise was often sought-after for consultation by other kennel owners, many of whom he met through the ABKA. Em became involved with the Richmond SPCA around 1975 when then director, Margaret Williams, came to see Glen Allen’s double-decker kennel system, of which Em had architectural copyright. Em helped the Richmond SPCA design their facility. It was during this time that the SPCA asked him to serve on the board.

Holiday Barn became involved with the Chamber of Commerce, joined the Better Business Bureau, and became active with other networking-type organizations to establish Holiday Barn as a mainline “business,” rather than just a backyard hobby. Developing a presence in the business community was a real challenge. It was the first time that the boarding industry was – in reality – taken “seriously.” Holiday Barn was making a true economic impact on the community, generating new jobs, offering a diverse service, hiring young people, becoming involved. Once their reputation was established, the financing of the second kennel was easy. Lenders had finally realized that this was not just two musicians with a “dream.”

Somehow, Em and Kathy still found the time to continue performing. They were playing and singing at the Mosque Theatre (aka the Landmark, and now Altria Theater), the Richmond Symphony Chorus, and onstage at the University of Richmond. Em felt comfortable that those he had hired at the kennel were providing excellent care of the animals when he and Kathy were away. Performing put the couple in the public’s eye. They were regarded positively within the community. As potential customers learned that Em and Kathy owned a kennel, they softened to the idea that their pet would be safe there, knowing that they were good, honest, animal-loving folks.

From the very beginning, charitable giving and community support have been an integral part of Holiday Barn values. Kathy says she remembers it starting simply with the Girl Scouts stopping by during cookie sales. They never said “no” and even when funds were tight, would always find a way to contribute. As Holiday Barn became more profitable over the years, “giving” kept pace to include food drives, sponsorships, support of rescue efforts, and participation in community events. Em and Kathy believe that rather than saying “no” to a charitable organization, you say “yes” and then find a way that supports the business too. That is how the Auction Gift Basket program got its start.

In 1980, the second Holiday Barn opened on Richmond’s Southside, at the same time Em and Kathy left their little house in front of the Glen Allen kennel and moved to their current home.

 Part III: Turning a Kennel into a Resort

 “What? A pool?” That was Kathy’s response when Em came home one day in the late 1990s and said the kennel needed a pool for the dogs. Em had heard that the Jefferson Hotel was considering spending 3 million dollars for a pool just so they could get a 5th star. Although there was no “rating system” for boarding kennels, Em’s personal goal was to become a 5-star pet hotel. So, if a pool was needed, that is what they’d do! Realizing how much her springer spaniels loved playing in the river at their home, Kathy was ultimately convinced. Most pools at that time were constructed of concrete, but Em was afraid that would be rough on the dog’s feet. He wanted a fiberglass pool, and they were hard to find. Em contacted a company in Deltaville that built large fiberglass commercial fish tanks and had them build a fiberglass box. He had a big hole dug on the Glen Allen campus. The “fiberglass box” was delivered on the back of a truck, and then lifted by a crane into the hole. Em and his plumber dug the ditches and ran all the piping…and one of the very first pools for dogs came to be! It was an exciting time. The “fish tank” pool is still in use in Glen Allen!dogs in pool

Current Marketing Director for Holiday Barn, Martha Prideaux, worked closely with Em during this time. She was apprehensive that putting in a pool for dogs might be a bit over the top and expressed her concern that it would never pay for itself. After its installation, Martha began promoting the pool to the media. In about the second month after the pool opened, all three local news television stations came to Holiday Barn to do a newscast on this cutting-edge development! A full-page story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch was also published. Martha was finally convinced that the pool would “pay for itself” and guests have been frolicking happily in the water ever since.

Somewhere along the line, “Holiday Barn Kennel” was changed to “Holiday Barn Hotel,” and later became “Holiday Barn Pet Resorts.” The initial company mission was simply to have a “high-quality boarding kennel.” After the first couple of years, the mission became “to be recognized as a true business in the Richmond Community.” Times and priorities have changed, and along with it, Holiday Barn’s mission is currently, “Creating Joy in the Lives of Pets and their Families.”

Emerson’s Perspective on What makes Holiday Barn Exceptional

“I believe the turning point leading to the success of Holiday Barn occurred during the first couple of years in business, 1972-1973, when we realized our dominate competitor was not other boarding facilities but instead the pet families pre-established vision, unpleasant mental image, of boarding facilities in general. Back then, leaving the pet at a boarding facility while the family vacations was seen as a tolerated necessity in order for the family to travel. From that moment on, when we realized the mindset of the general public, we worked aggressively to change Metro Richmond’s preconceived image of kennels to an image of a fun place for, dogs, kids in ATV

We ceased to focus on cost and changed our focus to paralleling the pet’s vacation with the family’s vacation. We became a “Resort” for pets with the same service quality and similar amenities offered by the best human resorts. We listened to our customers, concentrated to understand their concepts of pet vacations as compared to human vacations, and offered activities and services equal to human vacation resorts. At significant economic risk, we built pools, hired staff to toss tennis balls, walk in the park, read bedtimes stories, cuddle. We installed TVs in our guest rooms, organized pet birthday parties and holiday events, displayed artwork and even installed chandeliers. We heated the floors, installed hospital/restaurant flooring material, synthetic grass carpet, and numerous other amenities similar to what is found in the finest human resorts. The Jefferson Hotel and Ukrops Supermarkets became our local mentors for exceptional presentation and customer service. We hired staff based on the concept of ‘would these two service giants hire these people and place them in the public’s eye to represent their culture of image and service?’

We believe, proudly, we have changed the public’s unpleasant pre-conceived image of kennels to an image of highly professional, caring, and fun resorts for vacationing pets. Families can now look forward to having their pets enjoy vacations just like the vacations the family enjoys.”</>

Part IV: Michael at the helm

Em and Kathy’s son, Michael, graduated from Randolph Macon College in 1991. After graduating, Michael became an independent dealer for “Invisible Fence,” an electronic pet containment system. Running this business and managing its employees taught Michael the importance of commitment to customers, good business structure, and how to dedicate, initiate, and develop staff. His office location at the Glen Allen kennel also gave Michael a unique insight into Holiday Barn’s day-to-day activity. It was a natural progression for him to become involved with Holiday Barn operations in 1998.two men standing in front of sign

After 13 successful years, Michael sold the Invisible Fence dealership and stepped into the family business. It came at a time when Holiday Barn was experiencing growing pains to which Michael’s support was essential. Coupled with all the love that his mom and dad had for animals, Michael brought to the table a more contemporary, focused approach to managing Holiday Barn. He quickly dug in his heels, strategically planning and directing the business towards greater growth and sustainability.

In 2000, Michael enrolled in the MBA program at VCU. To further supplement his career objectives, he attended various other business classes at VCU and U of R. Michael believes that these educational experiences have greatly enhanced his understanding of business structure, strategy, and the importance of metrics. In 2002, Michael began applying this knowledge to the management of Holiday Barn. By virtue of a shift in philosophy and improved operations, Holiday Barn began gaining traction again.

To stay relevant with service offerings, one of Michael’s first undertakings was the opening of Holiday Barn’s Dog Daycare Operation in 2003, named “Camp Holiday Barn.” 30 years of experience with dog behavior evoked some resistance to enter the Daycare arena. Knowing the dangers that could result from dogs in packs, it was not to be taken lightly. Holiday Barn excitedly, but cautiously tread into this new territory. Serious training of Camp staff to assure the safety, health, and security of the “Campers” took center stage. Concurrently, the training of Holiday Barn employees in all positions was aggressively cultivated under Michael’s leadership. A formal onboarding training program was established and is now mandatory for anyone hired at Holiday Barn, regardless of position.

If there was one lesson Em and Kathy learned from running their first business, it would, admittedly, have to do with hiring employees. In the early days, they sought out pet lovers to manage their facilities. They found that many of these people were fabulous with the animals, but lacked leadership, management, or customer service skills. Michael was instrumental in changing that mindset, implementing the hiring of Holiday Barn employees from the corporate or professional pool. Yes, they had to love animals, but they had to know how to run a business, supervise employees, and provide excellent customer service.

In 2004, Michael was named Chief Operating Officer of Holiday barn Pet Resorts, and in 2010, he became President and Chief Executive Officer. He is respectfully known by his employees as, “The Head of the Pack.” Under Michael’s leadership, Holiday Barn’s revenue increased by 47% annually from 2002 to 2008.

Hugh Gouldthorpe, SVP of Quality & Communications (aka “Head Cheerleader”) at Owens and Minor, and co-author of “I’ve Always Looked up to Giraffes”, has been a mentor to Michael throughout his career. It was through this relationship, Michael was introduced to Dr. Bob Kelly of Pure Culture, who would serve to help propel Holiday Barn to the next level.

In 2009, Michael and Bob began the process of rebranding Holiday Barn to reposition the company and its vision. His ambition was to assure that all pack members held to the company’s core values and to put in place a sustainable course of action for the future. Today, Holiday Barn employees believe and endeavor to live the new company mission, “Creating Joy in the lives of Pets and their Families.”

Michael has refined many of the resort’s core services. Dog training, particularly, has been a somewhat aggressive pursuit for Michael during his tenure at Holiday Barn. Michael strives for Holiday Barn to play an influential part in the educational process of the pet community, improving the public’s level of commitment to the quality of life and the safety of people and pets. As an accomplished retriever trainer, Michael hires only professional, certified dog trainers from established, reputable Dog Training Schools.

Michael also saw the need for some “physical” improvements to the resorts. The Glen location has undergone several major upgrades, including the redesign and construction of the second floor to provide offices and meeting rooms for the staff. The first-floor grooming area was also renovated and modernized. More recently, the older kennels to either side of the main building in Glen Allen were demolished and replaced with the kennel’s “signature” bright and colorful guest accommodations.

At both of Holiday Barn’s resorts, daycare and play areas were greatly improved with the investment of bacterial-resistant SYNLawn artificial turf. Aside from keeping the pet clean, cool, and dry, the artificial turf delivers an environment free of pests such as fleas and ticks, helps prevent the spread of disease, and provides cushioning for our active guests. Colorful, commercial sail shades were added to play and common areas to protect guests and employees from Richmond’s scorching summer heat.

Michael, Ahead of the Pack

man in front of pool with dogs
Amid push-back from his contemporaries, including many veterinary professionals, Michael was proactive in instating the canine flu immunization in addition to veterinary core vaccinations that were required when a pet visited Holiday Barn Pet Resorts. In hindsight, this decision was likely the reason the resort was able to avoid a potential kennel-wide sickness during the canine flu outbreak of 2015. The new strains of the canine flu were aggressive and quickly spread across 30 states including Virginia.

As a result of Michael’s vision, Holiday Barn was the first in the Richmond pet community to offer Canine Enrichment activities. Canine enrichment offers guests the opportunity to exercise their brains while having fun. The enrichment program is a customized assortment of puzzles, games, and challenges designed to stimulate the dog’s brain, provide an appropriate level of exercise, and strengthen the human/pet bond.

As a determined advocate for the dog community, Michael has become well respected in the legislative community. He actively supports pet welfare, safety, and protection, and links arms with local humane organizations to endorse their educational and advocacy initiatives. An outdoor enthusiast, Michael has a profound respect for our natural resources and is active in his support for fish, wildlife, wetlands, and waterfowl conservation.

Holiday Barn Today

Today’s picture of Holiday Barn is much different than the one seen in the early ’70s. Attitudes towards pet ownership and their importance have changed tremendously in the past 50 years, and Holiday Barn Service offerings have changed with it. Home-like accommodations with activities comparable to human resorts are essential for today’s fur-children.

buildings and parking lotIn November 2015, Em and Michael closed the smaller kennel on Southlake Boulevard in Richmond and proudly opened a new 33,000 square foot luxury resort on approximately 5 acres in South Richmond. This amazing resort includes a bone-shaped swimming pool, 18 play yards with synthetic turf, luxury suites, cozy cottages, two Daycare pavilions, state-of-the-art kitty condos, and, yes, more! The original Glen Allen resort undergoes frequent updating to keep it fresh and modern. Between the two locations, Holiday Barn Pet Resorts can offer a variety of activities and accommodations for its many vacationing dogs, cats, and other furry pets. They have received numerous awards and accolades for all their core service offerings: Boarding, Grooming, Daycare, and Training.

From the company’s beginning, Emerson and Michael have recognized the need for support staff, realizing as entrepreneurs, they cannot fully dedicate their time in all areas of the business. Because of Holiday Barn’s success, they are grateful to be able to hire professionals in the areas of human resources, information technology, administration, and marketing. This “brain trust” provides a wealth of experience and unique perspectives to boost brand awareness, expand their network, and stay current on important issues.

While Em visits the ‘Barn often and is a great sounding board and “personal consultant” for Michael, he and Kathy are finally enjoying some well-deserved leisure time. They are still in love with animals, music, their ever-growing family… and, of course, each other. Bekah and Michael have both married and blessed Em and Kathy with three beautiful grandchildren. When not traveling, they enjoy time spent at home with their pack, an “ancient” Boykin Spaniel, a lively long-haired Chihuahua, and a big orange cat.


As told to and written by Tina Pack

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