Purpose: This study aims to examine the impact of COVID-19 on tourism and hospitality small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in an emerging country located in Latin America and identifies service innovation strategies adopted by these firms to survive a prolonged crisis. Design/methodology/approach: A qualitative investigation was conducted drawing on a framework of imposed service innovation. Data were obtained from in-depth interviews with owners/managers of 20 SMEs in the hospitality and tourism sector in Chile. Findings: Findings show that the effect of COVID-19 on SMEs includes a decline in demand due to lockdowns and restrictions, with minimal government support. Tourism and hospitality SMEs developed different service innovation strategies to confront the crisis, and several businesses were even able to exploit new opportunities for future growth. Originality/value: The effect of COVID-19 and SMEs' service innovation strategies to confront a prolonged crisis is a topic that is largely unexplored, particularly in the tourism and hospitality sector. The findings contribute to the literature on emerging markets, crisis management and SME innovation in tourism and hospitality. The findings provide managerial implications for SME managers, governments and policymakers.