Anna Morris used to have to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get to work on time. It was an 80-mile trek in heavy traffic from her home in Antioch, Calif., to her job behind the concierge desk at Silicon Valley's Westin Santa Clara. Pregnant with her second child, the 2½-hour commute was “breaking me down,” she says. It was time to quit.

That would be the end of the story if it weren't for two things: videoconferencing technology and a company willing to invest in a valuable employee. To keep her on board, the hotel came up with an inspired, unconventional arrangement: Morris is now Westin's first — no doubt the world's first — telecommuting concierge.

The startup cost was $50,000, which covered running a T1 line to her home and buying the equipment (Sony's Contact-ME videoconferencing system). “The system was set up to retain her expertise. The alternative was she quit,” says the Westin's General Manager Bruce Carpenter. Morris, who manages the hotel's frequent guest program and has been with the property for seven years, estimates that she knows at least 50 repeat clients by sight.

Four out of five days, guests view Morris on a flat, 40-inch screen mounted above the concierge desk (she still comes in one day a week), and they speak to her through a desk microphone or the telephone. She controls a pan/zoom camera remotely, allowing her to see what's going on throughout the lobby. The system, designed by Interactive Multimedia Artists, Santa Monica, Calif., includes an object camera as well as the ability to show guests what's on her computer, whether it's a Web site or a map from a CD-ROM. She sends info to guests via fax, but has found it too slow. An upgrade will soon allow her to e-mail guests and link into the hotel's internal reservation network, Carpenter says.

Customer reaction has been good. Children are especially receptive. “I wave at the little kids and they grab their parents. It's a nice ice breaker,” Morris says. “Often people think I'm a television and are surprised when I say hello.” The stock guest comment, “This is like the Wizard of Oz. Do you come out from behind the escalator?”

“I never thought I'd be working on camera, never in my dreams,” Morris says. “I didn't even have a computer at home. Now, I think it's the perfect thing for me.” Morris loves the setup, but perhaps even more, she loves what it says. “Being a loyal, good frontline employee can sometimes be a thankless job. Having my employer recognize my value — that's the best.”