Case Studies

Jamie Keys – Big Cedar Lodge

Handing over the keys to nature: Lake cottages and outdoor arenas

In 1987, Johnny Morris, who founded Bass Pro Shops, purchased a small parcel of lakeside property to create a “fish camp” getaway for his outfitters. Thirty-seven years later, that initial vision has evolved to become a luxury wilderness resort known as Big Cedar Lodge. The award-winning destination sits on 4,600 acres across the Missouri portion of the Ozark Mountains.

In 2019, Morris would walk the property nearly every evening to check on the construction of a new addition: a collection of cottages including four 3,500-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Lakeside Four-Bedroom Cottages, which would join a collection of rustic cabins, cottages and large lodges already open to guests. To guarantee there would be lake view rooms, Morris would climb up the scaffolding to see if the decks were at the right height to enjoy the brilliant amber sun setting over the lake.

Jamie Keys | Vice President of Facilities and Community Affairs | Big Cedar Lodge

Jamie Keys | Vice President of Facilities and Community Affairs | Big Cedar Lodge

Although the design team spent several months drawing up renditions of Morris’ ideas and hopes for the cottages, these routine checks were done for extra assurance. He provided his feedback to Jamie Keys, Big Cedar Lodge’s vice president of facilities and community affairs, who would then discuss it with his direct team and the design team. Keys also shared this information with the project manager to ensure the project would come in on time.

Since the new cottages opened in 2020, Keys and the Big Cedar team have continued maintaining them, from checking the floors and ceilings to ensuring each of the wood-burning and electric fireplaces is working.

“This four-bedroom cottage is my favorite realization of Mr. Morris’ vision for our luxury overnight accommodations,” Keys tells Blueprint. “I’m so proud of what we are able to do in bringing Johnny’s vision to life.”

Entertainment and education in nature

Keys also believes the cottages showcase the natural environment around them—all the siding is made from the bark of the trees in the surrounding area—and highlight the skills of local craftsmen, from the lighting to the woodwork in the interior and exterior.

“We’re focused on helping people experience the outdoors, and these lakeside cottages provide an immersive experience, including most of the amenities people enjoy at regular hotels—except with much better views,” he says.

Jamie Keys – Big Cedar Lodge

In 2022, the Big Cedar team began converting another of Morris’ dreams into reality. Keys had to work closely with officials at the local, county and state levels to obtain the proper permits and permission to transform an 8,000-seat outdoor amphitheater called Thunder Ridge Nature Arena to a 20,000-plus-seat theater. The company’s design team worked on the project in partnership with Kinetic Design and Development, based in Missouri. The firm’s architect and chief experience officer, Adam Kreher, lent his expertise in developing the design that will be host to so many people and such a broad spectrum of events.

Construction began in 2022 and should be completed in 2024. Surrounded by the Ozarks, Thunder Ridge is already home to the Missouri Thunder professional bull riding team and will be able to host over 50 annual events in addition to daily activities for guests, including target practice at the on-site Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy.

Keys says Morris provided the vision and parameters for the project and provides the creative space to ensure the collective team can work together to complete its goal.

“Like Big Cedar Lodge’s accommodations, it caters to a variety of guests, which is what makes it so exciting and, frankly, a lot of fun,” Keys says. “You’re surrounded by stunning lake views and these spectacular mountains while you watch a bull riding competition or listen to your favorite band.”  

Convergence of luxury and conservation

With the company for over 33 years, Keys has stayed because he loves the people—and, of course, the outdoors. He also enjoys being part of the team that brings the founder’s visions to life—and not all of them are about luxury or entertainment.  Morris is also dedicated to conservationist efforts, according to Keys.

“We don’t want people to just enjoy the outdoors; we want them to appreciate the beauty and the awe-inspiring aspects of nature—and to want to help protect it and the wildlife that calls it home,” Keys says.

Jamie Keys – Big Cedar Lodge

Keys explains that the company’s environmental plans and goals revolve around sound land management. Collaborating with experts in the area, he looks at ways of conserving natural resources, such as recycling, composting, conserving water and sustainable gardening.

A major area of conservation focus has been the development of golf at Big Cedar Lodge, which has five courses available to guests. With designers such as Tiger Woods, Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Fazio, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, the resort is a major golf destination; however, what makes it most unique is the Audubon International Signature Sanctuary Status certifications on all five courses.

“No facility has ever accomplished this before,” Keys says. “It is proof of Mr. Morris’ commitment to conservation, and our entire organization is proud to be a part of this.”

A sixth course, being developed by Morris himself, is currently in the works and will utilize the same processes to elevate conservation as well.

Jamie Keys – Big Cedar Lodge

In May 2015, when a sinkhole opened at the Top of the Rock golf facility, Morris sent out excavation crews, who are still working in the area today. So far, they’ve removed 1.6 million yards of earth—over 108,000 loads of dirt and rock—in hopes of making a discovery and connecting the cave systems that have been hidden below the earth for so many years.

Keys loves being in a place where he grew up and says he can never get enough of the Ozark Mountains—even after graduating from the College of the Ozarks. He says he can’t think of doing anything better than overseeing the building and maintenance of the destinations within this mountain range.

“I enjoy what I do, every single day, and the icing on the cake is my wonderful team, each of whom I consider family,” Keys says. “We never get bored, and we have so much fun creating these innovative, amazing nature resorts and outdoor experiences. We’re changing the way people think about the outdoors.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. I 2024 Edition here.

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